he music of Robert Sheff—“Blue Gene Tyranny”—is good like déjà vu or a rectal thermometer. It’s like home—home being, of course, a place as weird as it is comforting, which is why goosebumps are as much a biological circus of fear as they are of awe and peace. Sheff came out from the massive yawn of Texas. It makes sense. I’d buy Kansas, maybe, but certainly nowhere else. There is nothing as beautiful and unsettling as endless wheat.
Of course, what he—and composers like Robert Ashley, for whom Tyranny has long tinkled the keys—occasionally juice from these American meditations is stuff like 1977’s Out of the Blue, a queer record of prehistorically stoned art songs by a troupe of light-footed nutters with advanced degrees. Lyrically, it’s late-night, starry-eyed patter; on the 25-minute, album-closing tone poem “A Letter From Home,” vocalist Kathy Morton peeps about how beautiful it is to watch a city-sea full of people all having their own separate thoughts, or about how a kid growing up “imagines everything connected to everything else.” If you honestly believe you’ve never felt the same and find the sardonic, unforgiving bustle of life to be just cool, I applaud your monstrosity.
Sheff with pop is like an unattended kid with fire and a bucket of mayonnaise and an empty trailer. Better, imagine how a master painter might choreograph a dance. The best moments on Out of the Blue are as awkward and thrilling as Brian Eno’s pop experiments in the early ’70s; long-winded, but infinitely more concise than the heady, beatnik new age Sheff unfurled on “The World’s Greatest Piano Player” or the celestial barroom arpeggiations of Take Your Time. So while “For David K.” is just a pretty, foofy Herbie Hancock jam no matter how you cut it, “Next Time Might Be Your Time,” a country-lite tune laced with flange guitars, sparkly synthesizers, and enough bassoon poppin’ to make a shadow blush, is one of the most off-handed and graceful pieces of pop fusion I’ve ever heard. In that sense, Out of the Blue is what separates Sheff from some of his contemporaries and forbearers (David Behrman, the aforementioned Ashley): he made an album of songs when other like-minded composers treated songs like a lingering concept, another kitschy relic of human experience.
It’s corny music. But I’m not going to parse out whether it’s smart or not because it wouldn’t be productive. I don’t try to hack into whether there’s intelligence in meditation or yoga or Ativan. I grant a pass. Take the pretty liner notes to Out of the Blue and cover the jabber about “memory” and “memoryless” keyboards with packing tape (of all the cruel things words have done to explain art, law, and love, the offense is trivial compared to what they do to music). Keep the picture of Sheff, beaming, slightly pudgy, a deli-counter Buddha. Out of the Blue is a goat to the great racehorse. My friend David recently told me a story:
“Late one night I was lying in bed with [girlfriend redacted] and said ‘do you ever wonder if we’re just a bunch of cartoon foxes running around?’”
“And she didn’t take that well.”
“She told me she thought I might drink too much.”
“I sorta left out the part about the foxes wearing detective hats.”
The cartoon foxes idea is fairly bonkers, but I know the impulse: we all have our ways of looking at existence—it’s just that sometimes the simpler it gets, the stranger it feels.