The latest album from Cut Worms sounds like accidentally running into an old friend on your way to the beach. The third and self-titled record from singer/songwriter Max Clarke is an instantly nostalgic and fond look over the shoulder at the music we used to cherish more often. While the album demands to be enjoyed as a backdrop to a careless Summer day, the themes packed into the lyrics are anything but carefree, reflecting relentlessly on the yearning and burning of love. Cut Worms is a polished and subtle display of songwriting but ironically doesn't do enough to separate the persona of Max Clarke from the nostalgia he coincidentally is paying tribute to.
Returning after Clarke’s sprawling 17-track sophomore album Nobody Lives Here Anymore from 2020, his new self-titled record leans on the sparkling pop ballads you might hear on a classic AM radio station. The feeling of meeting an old friend is fitting, as Clarke enlisted his old friends in making this album – stepping away from the iconic Sam Phillips studio in Memphis he used for his previous album and instead returned to his rehearsal space to record.
Clarke infused the album with lyrics about the ups and downs of love and separation, with lines like “My eyes can’t see without you,” “My heart won’t beat til’ we meet again,” and “When you’re here with me, honey I’ve got all I need.” There’s a dark and heavy tone to the lyrics on a surface level, but intertwined with the twang of guitar or the swing of drums, it gets scooped up in the moment and feels happier than it reads.
The musical architecture is rightly centered around the nasal-forward vocals of Clarke himself and the patient guitar strumming that cleverly progresses through various chords in a song. Take, for example, the album’s opener, “Don’t Fade Out,” which shifts to a neat and tidy chord progression when the chorus arrives. These intricacies are created and tucked in a labyrinth of nuanced expression throughout the album’s nine songs.
However, a sonic malaise casts a shadow over Cut Worms. While there are the smatterings of piano keys and the bristling of brass, these moments are used incredibly sparingly. The album lacks a consistent noteworthy or standout moment, instead relying on the sum of each song’s parts to deliver a feeling to walk away with. The tempo change, the guitar solo, the standalone bass hammer-on, and the distinct drum fill is rare – Cut Worms is void of these classic music strategies to engage the listener.
Ultimately, an incessant dedication to the craft of fond reminiscence holds the album back from start to finish. Three albums into the project of Cut Worms, more should be asked of the talented Max Clarke and his creative output. The self-titled album from Cut Worms is a delicate sidestep from Max Clarke’s sophomore record instead of a confident step forward. This sidestep is impressive in its songwriting simplicity but too restrained from a growth perspective. Saluting the past is an important and exciting rung in the ladder when creating music, but always looking in the rear-view mirror robs you of the possibilities of now.
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