It’s a good bet that whoever says there’s no such thing as an original idea — in music or otherwise — has not taken a good close listen to Jonathan Spottiswoode. The London-raised performer has a popular following in New York City, but many might not know what to make of the gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter’s theatrical rock adventures, touched as they are with elements of jazz, folk, Broadway and Leonard Cohen-style poetic musings. Have I lost you yet?
If you’re still reading, you may just be the target audience for “Wild Goosechase Expedition” (Old Soul Records), an ambitious, far-reaching 17-track song cycle that’s ostensibly about a tour gone bad but can be seen as nothing short of an analogy for life itself (the “Wild Goosechase” of the title). Or maybe they’re just a bunch of songs — with Spottiswoode, you never know.
Spottiswoode breaks the album into four sections, kicking off with the innocuously titled “Setting Out” and gradually working toward the much darker “Starvation and Surrender” segment that closes out the record. Things start out cheerfully enough with “Beautiful Monday,” with its jaunty pop-single melody and upbeat if narcissistic plea that “everybody look at me, I’m beautiful.” But things are already getting darker by the third track, “Purple River Yellow Sun,” which sounds sort of like a twisted psychedelic outtake from “Showboat” — and I mean that as a compliment.
The album continues on from there in what really is an expedition through a jungle of themes and styles, all with no small dose of drama and humor — on “I’d Even Follow You to Philadelphia,” Spottiswoode croaks out what may be the best love song ever to channel the spirit of W.C. Fields. As original as the collection is, though, it’s eminently listenable — both as an album and, more surprisingly, as a collection of kicking individual tracks.
The album may be too long, particularly as the four-song “Starvation and Surrender” section — capped by the pretty but laconic 9-minute “You Won’t Forget Your Dream” — winds its way to a close. He might have been better off ending with the clever, Dylan-esque “Wake Me Up When It’s Over,” as trenchant a commentary on succumbing to the pressures of everyday life that’s ever been sung. “Wake me up when it’s over, and tell me what I did … just before you close the lid,” he sings, and I think he’s only halfways kidding.
In an era of popular music that’s invariably pre-packaged and easily labeled, “Wild Goosechase Expedition” is a small miracle — and a trip worth taking. Pack your bug spray.