Much has changed since Dustin Saucier released his first solo record, “I Wrote a Letter,” back in 2012.
Sitting across from him at Coffee by Design in Portland last week, talking about whether people still print CDs anymore, it’s hard to square the gentle blue-haired giant in glasses with the fresh-faced, rail-thin emo kid who got his start fronting prog-hardcore bands like Arms Against a Sea and Man, the Reformer.
Once his vocals ring into his brand new single, though, it all comes rushing back: “I’m never quite comfortable/ Being alright,” he sings on “It Shows,” tapping into the introspective, highly personal melancholia that has become his stock in trade through recent work in the Sad Bastards and Pretty Sad.
“As I’ve gotten older as a musician,” he says, “I’ve sort of honed in on what I’m good at.”
Where his early career was marked by highly technical vocal work and songwriting that seemed designed to push the envelope, Saucier has come around to that old Harlan Howard country-music dictum that all you need are three chords and the truth.
“One of the songs on the album (to be released Oct. 5) is maybe four chords,” Saucier says. “It’s one of the first songs I wrote for it and I showed it to a couple of friends and one of them said, ‘This is probably the best song I’ve heard you play.” I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t have to try so hard for the past 20 years?’”
“I haven’t dumbed it down,” though, he explains. “I’ve found my happy place.”
That happy place is often very sad. As Saucier has focused increasingly on being present in his music, conveying the emotion that drives a song’s creation, it’s impossible for him to avoid channeling his own experiences into what you hear.
“I had a lot of shit hit me within a month’s time,” he says, thinking back to a mid-pandemic week that just about broke him. “I lost my job, got dumped, began dialysis, and my dad died.”
“For me, the sad songs are a way for me to deal with my own depression,” he says. “For me, it’s a cathartic way to get those thoughts out. If I’m creative, I can pull myself back.”
Yes, from suicidal ideations and that sort of thing. But also from just considering the many permutations of the possible future involved with having eight people currently being evaluated as candidates to donate him a kidney.
“It’s torture,” he admits, “but it keeps me hopeful. I’m excited that I know eight people who are willing to go through that process.”
Or maybe he doesn’t know them. With the transplant process, everything is anonymous, and since three TV stations alerted the public earlier this year that he was in the market, it’s possible a good samaritan has stepped up.
It’s this feeling of in-between that populates “It Shows,” opening with the sounds of shuffling around a home studio arrangement and hesitant acoustic guitar that quickly grows in confidence and energy. “The mountain is too tall” his keening vocals warn. “I wanted to prove to you/ That I could grow.” And the sound does swell considerably with keyboard strings and isolated percussion hits and single notes that ring out from an electric guitar.
But the other side, the second verse, doesn’t offer any sort of hope or redemption. Instead, Saucier is undone by himself. “I’m not ready to be,” he knows about himself, “What I said I could be.”
As the acoustic strum fades away, and the strings remain, and the song devolves into silence, we are left to consider for ourselves what it means to want something, to let yourself hope for something, without knowing your chances of getting it.
And what if that “want” is simply life, itself?
Well, it spurs songwriting for Saucier. And he promises more alt-country, more full-band sound for the rest of the record. This isn’t so much the “single” as just the song he first knew was “done” and ready to release.
But you can be sure that all of it is filled with feelings for his father, reflections on the loneliness of the pandemic, considerations of his own mortality. Maybe even something about how close he came to getting a transplant, only to have it ripped away from him at virtually the last minute.
“That was tough for me to handle,” he says. “But not anymore. I’ve been pretty on the ‘silver linings’ thing.”
Even if they can sometimes be hard to find.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Bensbeendead., “Feels like Dancing” — With a song that kinda sounds like the future, this new work mashes up some West Coast monotone rap style with the quiet intimacy of Billie Eilish and the horn-flavored bombast of jam bands like Lettuce and the Motet. There’s even a featured trumpet solo to finish. This is hot.
• The Worst (featuring Dana Colley), “Vices (Live)” — On this older track given new live-video life, the interplay here between bass, guitar, and Colley’s sax causes a rippling effect across the stage that has you questioning just what noise is coming from where. The energy, though, is all Brook Binion at the front screaming: “I have no vices left to try/ And I have no spirit left to kill.”
• Andrew Thomas, “Ghost in the Machine” — A one-man band construction, keyboards and Casio beats undergird singer-songwriter fare that hopes “maybe some late-night DJ has a little hope to spare.” Shades of John Hughes movies combined with Ben Folds.
• Luniere, “Sleepless Night” — Tapping into the big-band energy of the ’70s, from Steely Dan to the Neville Brothers, this is full of keyboard sounds and guitar riffs, paired with three-part harmonies and guitar solos. And just a touch of the islands?
• Footings, “Lottery” — Full of rich harmonies and ghostly guitar, it’s hard not to hear some Lumineers here, with a combo package of roots and lo-fi that Footings has been developing for a decade. “I pay taxes and I bitch about it,” sings mostly frontman Eric Gagne, and nothing could be more relatable.
— Sam Pfeifle