Richard Swift just wasn’t made for these times. He’s got an old-timey sound, an Irving Berlin and George Gershwin-inspired Tin Pan Alley pop approach that you just don’t hear much these days. But even when he’s not harkening back to the early 20th century songwriting giants, he’s often channeling the sound of ’70s AM Radio, his own facial hair and curly afro matching in appearance what his music often melodically embodies. Even the picture of Swift on the cover of his latest album, Dressed Up for the Letdown, seems strangely old-fashioned, a black and white portrait of the singer-songwriter, draped in a poncho, holding balloons and standing in front of a fog enrobed mountain. I don’t know from what era this fellow comes, but it certainly ain’t the Lily Allen and Timberlake obsessed present.
One artist to whom Swift is often receiving comparisons is Rufus Wainwright, another such artist whose repertoire draws largely from decades past, whether his muse be Puccini or Randy Newman. Swift doesn’t quite have the overbearing dramatic flair that Wainwright does, but where the two most strongly find common ground is in their penchant for classic pop songwriting, the kind that existed long before rock `n’ roll was born. The clickety-clacking percussion that opens the album and title track is such an example, a simple, acoustic track that doubles as a tap dance number. With just a little touch of flugelhorn, it becomes a deceptively more elaborate production, and all the more whimsical at that, fit for a Vaudevillian dance number.
“The Songs of National Freedom” jumps further toward a ’70s pop sound, reminiscent of Harry Nilsson, Swift innocently and honestly declaring, “I made my way into the spotlight, just to realize it’s not what I want,” as his sprightly piano dances with a rubbery bassline. “Most of What I Know” even sounds like a great lost hit song of yore, its melody beyond catchy and its lyrics grinning with a coy charm, repeating the refrain “your love will keep my heart alive. ” There’s a sly cynicism and self-deprecating wit on “Artist & Repertoire,” as Swift sings “Sorry Mr. Swift/there’s no radio/that likes to play the songs of your lovers’ sorrow/so just sing us a jingle and we’ll float you some bread/and all it will cost is your heart and your head.” Okay, maybe those sorts of barbs are more a product of the present day, as well as his own mixed experiences in entertainment, but his own witty exchange here is nothing if not classy and charismatic.
The big single (or what should be, anyway) is a delightful song titled “Kisses for the Misses.” With a steady stream of handclaps, a barroom piano gallop and hooks that don’t let go, “Kisses” is another such track that sounds like a long lost 45 from ’70s Laurel Canyon, but there’s no Newman, Buckingham or Browne on here. It’s a Swift original, and a grand and beautiful example of his knack for old school pop brilliance. Cynicism still permeates the song, opening with the blunt declaration, “everyone loves you when you’re gone” and transitioning toward the glum refrain “we’re all alone, `cause nobody cares.” But it’s delivered with a wink and a smile, making it hard not to wipe those tears and sing along with our hard luck troubadour.
Though there is a brief touch of vocoder in the bridge of “P.S. It All Falls Down,” the song is anything but modern electro kitsch. Rather, it’s every bit as warm and soulful as any of his other tracks, wrapped in a blanket of analog and piano strings. Likewise, “The Million Dollar Baby” floats on a bittersweet melody of slide guitar riffs, and though Swift admits “I wish I was dead most of the time,” he reassures us, “I don’t really mean it.”
It’s hard not to like Richard Swift; certainly, his songs are good, but they’re delivered with such personality and charm, they come off as damn near irresistible. If there’s an antique quality to his music, it’s only because his approach doesn’t include glossing over something that sounds just fine the way it is. When people eventually tire of blog-pop, auto-tune and another goddamn cover of “Crazy,” Dressed Up For the Letdown will still sound vibrant and alive. Apparently, timelessness is old fashioned.
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson
Rufus Wainwright – Rufus Wainwright
M. Ward – Transistor Radio
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.