If the idea of a great visionary of cinema releasing an album in 2011 smacked of novelty, the fact that David Lynch has got another one together 18 months later suggests genuine commitment to music. And why not? Strictly speaking, ‘Crazy Clown Time’ wasn’t even Lynch’s debut. He recorded an album with John Neff in 2001, under the name BlueBob. And for his films, he’s always worked hands-on with composers. There have been other collaborative musical releases, too, and he’s never been shy of performing – most notably acting in his celebrated TV series Twin Peaks, and recently even doing voiceover work on Family Guy and its spin-off, The Cleveland Show.
Over time, the 67-year-old has become quite the Renaissance man. He first trained as a painter and later extended his visual imagination to furniture and nightclub design, as well as films. He shoots music videos (most recently for Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Come Back Haunted’), sells his own line of organic coffee beans and passionately espouses the values of Transcendental Meditation.
But just because Lynch is a modern-day icon and polymath, it doesn’t mean he’s exempt from the troubles that plague all musicians when making a follow-up record. For a man whose work is so distinctive it even has its own (often misused) adjective – ‘Lynchian’ – it’s no surprise that ‘The Big Dream’ echoes his previous album. He didn’t take a break from making music after the release of ‘Crazy Clown Time’; he simply carried on working with sound engineer Dean Hurley, who also plays on both records – and, in that sense, ‘The Big Dream’ is a sequel. To its credit, it’s a more focused album. But the issue is that the two main faults of ‘Crazy Clown Time’ are more pronounced second time round. Lynch is a shaky singer and his method of working doesn’t always produce killer tunes, and whether those things ruin ‘The Big Dream’ depends entirely upon how much of a die-hard fan you are.
Lynch’s songwriting technique is impressionistic. For ‘The Big Dream’, he began with loose, bluesy jams, which over time took shape as a narrative or an interesting sonic texture. These aren’t songs with strong verse-chorus structures; they’re gliding pieces that prioritise atmosphere above melody, but are nonetheless rooted in classic forms: 12-bar blues, ’60s girl-group pop, rockabilly, ragtime, dub, even disco and house.
The process works best when Lynch hits on a formula. The album’s three most straightforward tracks – ‘Cold Wind Blowin’’, ‘Are You Sure’ and bonus track ‘I’m Waiting Here’ – are all lovely, forlorn blues songs played in waltz time (the key to making music sound Lynchian, along with reverbed guitar). There’s a cover of Dylan’s ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’, too (or rather a cover of Nina Simone’s version), which seems incongruous until some very Lynch-like imagery jumps out at you: “Way out in the wilderness, a cold coyote calls”.
After the album’s mid-point, Lynch and the characters in his songs take a massive left turn into Weird Town. ‘Say It’, ‘We Rolled Together’, ‘Sun Can’t Be Seen No More’ and ‘I Want You’ are brooding, unsettling and full of intrigue. On ‘Sun Can’t Be Seen No More’, it’s almost like Lynch is reprising the Bobby Peru character Willem Defoe played in Wild At Heart. The song even finishes with the aside, “No, no, no, I don’t drink that foreign beer!” possibly referencing a Dennis Hopper line in 1986’s Blue Velvet: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
Towards the end of the record Lynch’s reedy voice begins to grate, but there’s a sweet one-two to close ‘The Big Dream’. He saves his best singing for the final song proper, ‘Are You Sure’, then hands over vocal duties to Lykke Li for the bonus track, and she steals the show. Karen O did a similar thing on ‘Crazy Clown Time’, making you wonder why Lynch doesn’t just bring in more hired help. Nonetheless, there’s enough musical ambition, heartbreak and menace on ‘The Big Dream’ to keep the Lynch nerds absorbed.