Dick Stusso’s ‘In Heaven’
Dick Stusso is the nom de plume and musical alter ego of Nic Russo and yesterday he released In Heaven, his second album. Dick Stusso’s eclectic debut, Nashville Dreams/Sings the Blues, was recorded by Russo on his own in his Oakland apartment, using a mixture of decrepit analog gear and a cheap digital workstation. Nashville Dreams was a ramshackle collection of country, boogie and blues-inflected jams that became a surprise hit, with no one more surprised than Russo himself. In Heaven continues where Nashville Dreams left off, but this time he was in a proper recording studio and he used the members of his touring band. As a result, In Heaven feels more consistent, coherent and considered, and I can already tell that this will be one of my favourite albums of the year.
“Well Acquainted” opens with a single tremolo guitar chord that introduces the singer, who we appear to be joining mid-conversation:
And it feels like we’re heading
The same way we came
Everything is changing
And everything’s the same
At this point the rhythm section joins in, sounding unhurried and affable, while the singer double tracks himself in a falsetto register, a trick Russo frequently employs to add brightness to the vocal as well as the mood.
People are out there doing
What it is they do
You and I wonder
What it is we should
After two verses, Russo lets his lead guitar take the third and final round, keeping the arrangement taut and unadorned.
The slow R&B sound of “Well Acquainted” finds an echo in the second song, “The Bullshit Century, Pt. 1”, which begins as an overwrought 1950s-style ballad before changing gears one minute in, switching to a classic doo-wop chord progression in three-quarter time.
All your dreams were sorrows in disguise
Now your worst fears are being realised
With nowhere to run to, baby, and nowhere to hide
Modern life is just an ad for modern life
When he sings “modern life”, the song stops dead for five long seconds. Then the guitar comes to the fore with a tasteful lead break, before ending the song unaccompanied soon afterwards. Only three minutes long, “The Bullshit Century, Pt. 1” could be seen as a medley of two even shorter songs. Most Dick Stusso songs are frugal in their structure, if not downright stingy.
I interviewed Russo last week and asked him about his idiosyncratic songwriting. “Before this I was in a punk band and we were into writing 30-second songs, just cut out all the nonsense,” he said. “The idea behind it was, people are only gonna listen to 30 seconds of it anyway so just make the song 30 seconds … The rest of it’s just flair and filler and showing off or something.” Fortunately, Russo is a gifted songwriter and his minimalist songs never sound incomplete or underwritten. He has a quirky take on the art form that is both refreshing and compelling.
“Up the Stream” is even more downcast lyrically than the two songs that come before it. He laments that: “Sometimes I think I don’t like anything / But I try, Lord, I try / I just don’t seem to get it right.” Over a subdued, jazzy blues backing, he describes having to “keep swimming up the stream”, to be endlessly expending energy without ever making progress. It’s a poignant, beautiful song that I think is central to the album, but its seriousness is deliberately undercut by Russo chuckling as he delivers the last line, as if mocking himself for his desperate predicament.
Nic Russo never sought a career in music. His recordings were only meant for himself, and perhaps a few trusted friends. “There was a part of me that always wanted to make records … but I just made music on my own and … I never put the first foot forward,” he said. “I rejected a success-minded ethos and so that in turn made me more of a reclusive songwriter.” He still has a day job, working for a tree-removal company in nearby Contra Costa County, California. “Yeah, I’ll be working tomorrow, same job,” he told me. “Chainsaws and chippers and all that.” Loath to deliver such personal songs to the world at large, Russo invented the washed-up country entertainer Dick Stusso to sing them instead. “Dick Stusso’s a thinly veiled character,” he admitted. “I have a lot of similar tendencies. Yeah, yeah. Definitely, I have some nihilistic tendencies.”
“Modern Music” begins with a fuzz bass chugging over a relaxed drumbeat. Tremolo guitar and piano soon join in to underline the chord changes. Its easygoing groove made it an obvious choice for first single, so naturally Russo threw in a disorienting interlude in the middle to disrupt things. When I asked him about that, he laughed, saying, “I tend to be a contrarian by nature and I took the song that was more accessible, with a beat and a driving bassline, whatever, and then I thought, ‘You know what, how can I make this a little less accessible?’ ”
The lyrics of “Modern Music” would unsettle some listeners, too:
Modern dreams are a prison built in endless factories
I’m standing at the gates, pissing in the wind
Nobody wants to look at the dark heart
And I don’t blame them
Nobody wants to look at the dark heart
Still, Russo doesn’t shy away from staring into the abyss. Taken together, the songs on In Heaven depict a man in existential crisis but somehow his depressed lyrics don’t sound depressing in context. The lo-fi Dave Edmunds of Nashville Dreams has turned into a morose J. J. Cale on In Heaven. “It would be great to make a raucous rock ’n’ roll record,” Russo told me. “But the state of affairs and where I was at just lent itself to making a more sombre record, I suppose.” He laughed, then continued: “It was inevitable. I couldn’t feign [the emotions] to make a solid, pumped rock ’n’ roll record when I was not feeling, you know, necessarily rock ’n’ roll.”
In Heaven was originally intended to be home-recorded, like its predecessor, but after countless hours working on it by himself , getting it to the point where it was almost completed, disaster struck. “One morning I got a call from my girlfriend asking why I’d left the back door open,” he said. The couple soon realised their apartment had been burgled. “I came to find that all of my musical equipment had been stolen. All of the back-ups and my computer, and there was just no way to salvage any of the stuff I’d been working on … You know, it’s a pretty big sinking feeling knowing that everything was lost.”
Only one tiny snippet of a song survived the theft, “Addendum”. A simple blues boogie that lasts just over a minute, Russo had emailed a mix to a friend and it was still saved on their computer.
After the initial shock, Russo had a surprising reaction: “I was at a point where I was having to mix all the tracking I’d done and it was a nightmare untangling everything that I had. And so there was a part of me that was, ‘Oh, you know, some of the things that I’m not happy with I have an opportunity to redo.’ So it was a pretty quick turnaround for me. I wasn’t totally devastated. Pretty bummed out but not fully devastated.” Russo set about rebuilding his second Dick Stusso album from scratch, re-recording all the songs in a conventional studio. “I think it worked out better,” he said, “because it makes a cohesive album and the whole thing sounds like it was meant to be together. The other one was going to be a little bit more bouncing around, fidelity-wise.”
Russo may be a nihilist but he’s a pragmatic one. His doppelgänger, Dick Stusso, however, often resorts to alcohol to self-medicate when the going gets tough. “That’s part of the country aesthetic,” Russo says, laughing again. “The music pairs well with alcohol.”
There are many references to booze sprinkled throughout both albums, but this record’s “Getting Loose” is an out-and-out drinking song:
And if there’s consolation
Buried deep within a song
I don’t think I’ve found it
In fact I think it’s gone
With a feeling like that I had to get loose
I had to get loose
In Heaven reaches a kind of metaphysical climax with “The Big Car Commercial Payout” in which the Dick Stusso character seems to be trying to fathom his own significance or, more likely, insignificance. The conclusion is that he’s just a “Big funny cowboy man at the dream buffet / Getting endless satisfaction, endlessly.” In between the layers of dialogue, Russo sings, “Nothing matters anymore”, and a frenetic guitar solo is left hanging in midair when the song abruptly ends.
Redemption is at hand for most of us, it seems. “In Heaven” concludes the album with a romantic, slow waltz:
And all those years spent here
Uncertainty and fear, and all that junk
Well, we’ll just look back and laugh about it
In this song, when Russo says that nothing matters, he’s not being cynical for once. “I think my most optimistic thinking is … it’s only just a flip of your view until things just don’t matter – but that’s a great thing, you know? That’s a freeing thing as opposed to being bogged down by how meaningless everything is.”
Nashville Dreams, the record that launched Stusso, was, in Russo’s words, “a celebration of failure”. In the end, he failed upwards. Now signed to Hardly Art, a subsidiary of Sub Pop Records, he seems to have stumbled unwittingly into a conventional music career, but In Heaven is not a conventional album and nor is he a conventional artist. The contrarian who refused to try has become the overachiever who doesn’t have to. “I never could have imagined that from putting out a tape I would be talking to someone in Australia a year or so later, asking me about what I think about music. It just never even crossed my mind. I feel like I won some sort of small musical lottery.”
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CABARET The Miss Behave Gameshow
Sydney Opera House, March 7-18
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2018 as "Heaven spent".
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