The word critics most often use to describe Mike Watt's music is "elliptical", which should give you some idea just how difficult describing his music is. Ever since his time as bassist for punk/funk legends Minutemen, Watt has specialized in music of evasion. Most punk rock barrels forward; his music is a constant sideways skitter. His songs never take the straight route, but they still manage to get where they're going faster than anyone else, depositing a few unlodgeable sounds in your ear and disappearing all in the elapsed time it takes for you to mutter, "Huh?"
No one can maintain that kind of high-step forever. Mike Watt is 53 now, and hyphenated-man, his new solo record, is a meditation on that truth, a punk-rock lifer's shit-eating-grin look at mortality. A lot of aging men in rock make this record eventually, the one that takes baleful stock of their accumulated scars, settles debts, issues pronouncements. The "Regrets? I've had a few" record. Often, they sag under the leaden weight of their subject matter.
But not Mike Watt's version — his is, well, more elliptical. There are myriad ways to moan "I'm gettin' old" in rock 'n' roll, but nobody else has done so by writing 30 songs dedicated to individual figures in Hieronymous Bosch's gruesome Renaissance triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The titles describe the figures: "belly-stabbed-man," "pinned-to-the-table-man," "head-and-feet-only-man." The lyrics, however, are startlingly direct and personal: On "antlered-man," he sings wryly, "When I was younger, tried to act like something stronger/ But the ego, it just won't let go," encouraging himself to "get naked, let weakness show." As is usually the case with Watt's work, what looks wildly counterintuitive on paper turns out to be, for him, somehow the shortest distance from A to B.
Apart from the words, his voice betrays the years: It has acquired a beer gut and a permanent sunburn, full of the crags and pits that come from decades of "jamming econo." But the antic rhythms haven't flagged a step. Many critics have faltered in conveying this experience, but here goes: It's like riding shotgun in a dune buggy down the sheer side of a rocky cliff, gripping the handles while Watt shouts factoids about the native flora and fauna into your ear. It's thrilling, queasy, and disorienting; it's packed with information and over too soon; and the minute you make it down alive, you want to start over.