There was a time when opera was the preferred form of entertainment. Yes, this trend started way back in the 1600’s, but it lasted until the late 1800’s, far longer than rock and roll or major motion pictures have subsisted so far. I was pondering the art form recently and was reminded that opera stories more often than not end in tragedy, again, a far sight from modern pop and Hollywood films. The great ones always end in death. Not to spoil them for you, considering that at some point Joel Schumacher or Joe Esztherhas will bastardize them for the big screen. Too many times I’ve heard people equate entertainment with happy endings. When did we stop realizing that tragedy is much more compelling? When did we begin disregarding the fact that misfortune and heartbreak engender the best creative works? I know one person who hasn’t forgotten the power of operatic tragedy, and that person is Texas singer / songwriter Micah P. Hinson.
Hinson has experienced his share of tragedy, which as our own Molly B. Eichel stated in her review of his debut, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, have been reported ad infinitum in nearly every short bio of the former skater. I won’t be repeating those tragic stories of Hinson’s early days, but I will apprise you of his further tales of woe. While at home celebrating Burns night, a tradition celebrating the work of poet Robert Burns, a friend playfully punched Hinson in the small of his back, leaving the smoky-voiced troubadour in massive pain, a return to the same prescription medication that led him to addiction earlier, and an eventual emergency surgery. As Burns wrote in “To a Mouse,” `the best laid schemes o mice and men, Gang aft agley.’ But Hinson turned yet another misfortune into beauty, for it was while recovering from this procedure that Hinson wrote and recorded the bulk of Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit.
While the `Gospel of Progress’ consisted of the orchestral psychedelia of the Earlies, the Opera Circuit is comprised of fellow stripped-down singer / songwriter Eric Bachmann on sax, English harmonica player H. Da Massa and Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman on viola and violin amongst about ten others. These musicians ended up doing exactly as Ms. Eichel pleaded, `let’s have a little more Micah and little less Gospel.’ This is the album that Micah P. Hinson fans knew was in him, a stark and powerful set of songs that delve deeper into the soul than any of his previous work. Opener “Seems Almost Impossible” is like the soundtrack to a film about destitute hobos, while “Diggin a Grave” would do Tom Waits proud. Hinson sums it all up in this song with the lines, “There’ll be no more compromise again.” “Jackeyed” features horn arrangements by Bachmann, along with a banjo line, that apes the whimsy of Sufjan Stevens’ work.
“Drift Off to Sleep” is one of those songs that find Hinson at his most vulnerable. Gone are the layers of instrumentation, at least through most of the song, leaving him alone with his acoustic guitar, matching the vulnerability of lovers when they sleep. “Letter From Huntsville” has Hinson lamenting the state of his back before he states that he’ll `get to California someday.’ This exultation then leads to a kind of horn-fueled Mardi Gras. “She Don’t Own Me” again finds Hinson in a more intimate setting, while “My Time Wasted” counters that with more revelry. One of the most remarkable songs on the album is the penultimate “You’re Only Lonely,” a song that owes as much to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Styrofoam Plates” as it does to Devotchka. The machine gun drumming and guitar crunches just before the four minute mark are as inspiring as anything by Sigur Rós.
With a voice like the bastard son of Leon Redbone, Micah P. Hinson is making the most of tragedy. Hinson knows that the most meaningful art doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. Maybe that’s why he covered “Yard of Blonde Girls,” one of Jeff Buckley’s unfinished songs, for the Dream Brother tribute to the tragic father and son combination. If the celebratory ending of “You’re Only Lonely” is any indication, than maybe we can imply that Hinson has found that silver lining in the ever present cloud above his head. While I wouldn’t wish more hardships on anyone, in Hinson’s case, whatever doesn’t kill him only makes him a stronger songwriter. But thankfully, the fat lady hasn’t yet sung note one.