The Trouble With Sweeney, Dear Life

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 06.15.11 in Reviews
A reedier, weedier Wilco; an oakier Okkervil River

It is perhaps no accident that the cover of the Trouble With Sweeney's "Dear Life" is an exact replica of the cover of Richard Brautigan's short story collection Revenge of the Lawn. Like Brautigan, Sweeney is enamored of smallness, finding the dark humor at the center of acute personal narratives. In fact, what stands out most about these songs — most of which fall snugly inside the same alt-country terrain as Wilco or the Old 97s — is the level of lyrical detail: the half-moon scars from a botched surgery, the mock wanted poster on an apartment wall, the kids using the laundry basket as a sled. Sweeney draws his characters with such depth and detail that, by the end of each opening verse, you almost feel you know them personally. That he's paired these stories with some of the winningest melodies this side of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams is just a bonus. If the album has a thesis statement, it's contained in the sample of Billy Liar in the album-closing "The Ghosts of 97": "I don't like knowing everybody, I don't like being a part of things. What I'd like to be is invisible — to be able to move around without having to explain everything." "Dear Life" attains this fly-on-wall invisibility, and the stories it turns up are fascinating. After the Trouble disbanded, Sweeney founded the Philadelphia-based gossip site Philebrity, where he's still writing short, sharp observations of the world around him — using fewer words than ever.