Rogers Sings Rogerstein
The You Am I frontman brings in a dubious 'collaborator' for his second proper solo album, but the songwriting's not all that different, writes A.H. CAYLEY.
In 1974, Peter Sellers appeared on the talk show Parkinson. It was a warm, entertaining and very personal insight into the enigmatic actor and comedian – opening up as he eventually did, with a resigned air and a distant gaze, about his failed marriages, how hard he is to live with, his restlessness. It remains one of the best – if not the best – interviews Michael Parkinson ever did.
It almost didn't happen. Shortly before the show was to shoot, Sellers had an attack of nerves. “I can't go on,” he reportedly said. “I can't do this. I'm an actor. I never go on as me.” “I don't care who you come on as,” Parkinson replied. “As long as you come on.” And so Sellers was taken to the costume department. Cameras rolling, Parkinson introduced him to the studio audience and indeed he went on. He began the interview as a Nazi, in leather overcoat and helmet, reciting from The Producers. Even after shedding the costume he remained, for much of the interview, in one character or another, flitting through his repertoire as required before, finally, he had nothing else to wear.
Tim Rogers has spent the last few years acting; as the Entertainer in Woyzeck at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre; as the Musician in Ride On Theatre Company's The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself, for which he also did the music; as a rabid AFL fan in a current series of TV promos. He will apparently be working on three films later this year. He's scored the movie Wish You Were Here and composed the music for Malthouse's Blood Wedding. He has immersed himself in characters. There are those who would claim he has been doing this his entire career, perhaps his whole life. On Rogers Sings Rogerstein, his second truly solo album after 2008's The Luxury of Hysteria, Rogers writes with Shel Rogerstein, a Cleveland local he met on a train in southern France; a man with no online fingerprints besides media surrounding the album, no other work to his name and an aversion to touring. Fair enough.
In a letter accompanying the press release, Rogers answers the questions before they can even be asked. “Quite where the percentages lie in lyrical/musical contributions on this album is unclear,” he writes. “... Shel claims he's as baffled as to his contributions as I am to mine. Subjects are close to my bones, but as our lives within this loose ramble have become so confluent, quite who's leaning on whose shoulder is unclear.”
As an album, Rogers Sings Rogerstein is exactly that – a loose ramble. Lacking the cohesion that made The Luxury of Hysteria such a stunning and immersive experience, it is stylistically disjointed; an exercise in pastiche, with Rogers goose-stepping between sound and tone almost as frivolously as Sellers plucked impersonations from his past. It's infuriatingly hard to latch onto, the terms of the experience constantly ripped up and rearranged just as you think you've found the right page. None of this seems accidental.
The Brechtian waltz of tender first track 'All or Nothing' suggests a theatrical work is being introduced, but this is immediately abandoned for the straightforward rock of 'Drivin' At Night', all alcohol and lightning and shame. The Gary Glitter romp of 'One of the Girls' leads into the truly touching 'Part Time Dads', a list of everyday pathos that – following the hushed repeat of “Tell me I was good for something” – ascends to finish on a moment of clarity and real beauty: “My love, you are levity and light, and nothing, nothing hurts at all.” The final line, “It's just one of those days,” is delivered with such muted sadness that you can almost see him smiling bravely through the pain.
But then a moment like this is contrasted with something like the wilfully silly bluegrass tune 'Beefy Jock Guys and Modern Dance Music' as he again switches character. Despite it propping up the genius line “Do you remember when junkies used to look like the J. Geils Band/Not tired marathon runners combing the sand?”, it still feels upsettingly jarring to leap from tragedy to comedy so quickly and so often.
For such a strong concept, this is no concept album; there is little connecting these songs besides Rogers himself, and that guy Shel. This is no contractual-obligation album, thrown together part-pseudonymously to appease someone at the crossroad; it is the first release on an entirely new label. Mostly, this is no collaborative album; Rogers has created a character for himself, but it looks and sounds exactly like him.
Right from the release of the first single, 'Go On Out, Get Back Home', it was clear. The pattern of “I'm the [inferior] to your [superior]” and “the [auxiliary] to your [main]” references Luxury's 'Things Gonna Get Ugly', from which the description of oil dripping down your sleeve is an almost direct lyrical lift. 'Drivin' At Night' (“By the time I hit Albury/the reasons became furry/And impulse had just given way to shame,”) is not the first that has him staring through a windscreen ('Paragon Cafe', 'The Songs They Played As I Drove Away'). The glam riff on the defensively mocking 'I Love You Just As You Are, Now Change' harks back to Dilettantes' 'Wankers'. 'Let's Be Dreadful' is the title of an entirely different Dilettantes B-side, and was the name of You Am I's 2010 tour. There are familiar phrases that seem to wink at you as they fall: Avuncular. Charming. Liquor. Drawers. Thug. Bandit. To be alone. Bette Davis. If a man named Rogerstein really contributed anything to these songs, he was lost in production. He has every right to be baffled.
So why does he exist? These songs are revealing and intimate, yes, but no more than any other in Rogers' back catalogue. He has never shied from personal revelations, from plumbing sorrow, agony, anxiety, broken relationships, his own failings, right back to the albatross of 'Berlin Chair'. Something has changed while he's been concerning himself with the stories of others; perhaps he found freedom in distance. Perhaps he needs this separation to keep going. Perhaps, after 23 years of it, Tim Rogers is just done with Tim Rogers.
These songs are worth it, but ultimately the most deeply fascinating aspect of Rogers Sings Rogerstein is not the music or the words but their context; the tale behind them and the questions it poses. Why, and why now, does Tim Rogers need an Ohioan's leather overcoat and helmet just to go on as himself? It may be that this distraction is the point entirely.