Songs Without Jokes by Bret Mckenzie album review by Greg Walker for Northern Transmissions


Songs Without Jokes

Bret Mckenzie

Bret Mckenzie, the cooler, more musically inclined half of the New Zealand spoof outfit, Flight of the Conchords, stays busy creating widely successful (even Grammy-winning) songs. In Wellington, NZ, in Los Angeles, California, in New York City. When he announced his latest album, Songs Without Jokes, it was anyone’s guess how much the album’s name was tongue in cheek.

Though he’s been in serious bands before, he’s known for his brand of impeccably composed songs that turn adult contemporary music into a big fat joke. And there’s always been something to be said for how well he’s able to ape their musical mastery, while making you think about how foolish it can be to take some of all that love, social consciousness, and heartbreak serious.

Well, on his latest album, he’s “grown up.” “Trying to raise my children to look me in the eye / Looking for the secret that’s more the truth than a lie,” he sings with complete candor on the heart-heavy, “Carry On.” The album’s opening song, something that could be a dead-ringer for a Randy Newman song, without, however, any of Newman’s sharp wit, is the closest that we get on any of the songs to the clever wackiness that we’ve known Mackenzie for.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be a bit let down, that the man who wrote “A Kiss Is Not a Contract,” is singing now about being “Here For You,” with not a single hint of irony. “When I wake up and you’re not there / There’s only heartache and pain / Don’t look for someone new / Baby I’m here for you.” The power of the album, to be sure, is that a joker like Mackenzie can be real for eleven songs, and write songs that would resonate with fans of Steely Dan and Harry Nilsson. That show the same tendency towards song-writing genius in composition, lyricism, and instrumentation.

It is, however, not what Mackenzie is known for (at least not yet), and so it comes a bit of a surprise, like a fortune cookie with math equations in it or a clown teaching you how to do your taxes. For sure, comedy has in many ways helped people to seem to be facing tough issues, like climate change, relational accountability, and human responsibility, while really escaping from them, all while feeling like they’ve accomplished something real and meaningful in the process.

And that is the surprise that we, his listeners, might need to hear. That comedians don’t have to be slaves to comedy, like a jester who might be killed if he doesn’t make the king laugh. Mackenzie takes the risk of taking off the clown suit, and his songs overwhelmingly hit you in the feels, just not the funny feels. It is a bit like finding out that your accountant neighbor is also a deep-feeling poet or a politician has a son or daughter who is a punk rocker who still has an earned respect for their father. The songs, all eleven, are really good songs. Just maybe not what you might be expecting.

Order Songs Without Joke by Bret McKenzie HERE


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