Cut Worms is a Timeless Triumph

NYC singer/songwriter Max Clarke’s self-titled project tells all the right stories of an eternal, American pop identity with the ease of an old-timer and the fresh eyes of a modernist

Music Reviews Cut Worms
Cut Worms is a Timeless Triumph

There’s something special about Cut Worms’ self-titled LP—it sounds like something you’ve heard before. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to say it’s derivative. Max Clarke’s third full-length project under his beloved moniker presents itself calmly and without too much fuss, like an album your grumpy-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather might have played after supper on a big, clunky CD player when he babysat you as a little kid—or that you’d hear in a small-town diner with a 15-page, laminated menu. It’s front-porch firefly music, sepia-toned and even-keeled. And yet, it’s in possession of an X-factor that classic rock sycophants of today’s folk scene often miss entirely. In its expertly-orchestrated nods to the bygone genre, Cut Worms very clearly takes on an identity of its own.

Clarke’s newest album embodies traditional Americana in the purest form: It’s jangly, catchy, folksy and a little bit pissed off. Sprinkled amidst the twanging love pleas and swinging piano riffs are explorations of a real, endemic hurt which, for decades, the most talented and brave among us have disentangled from this country’s DNA and interwoven into art. Clarke does that on Cut Worms, too, just enough that where he’s coming from is familiar without arriving oversaturated. The LP presents itself sunnily, a light-drenched, head-first dive into what Clarke himself calls “pop essentialism”—but hidden beneath its shining surface is a quiet, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it urgency without which the record would lack dimension. Indeed, his sincere, timely discontent with the state of things around him saves the album from being the sort of (very, very well-executed) 21st century tribute to folk-rock that gets relegated to easy-listening radio stations and TJ Maxx store stereos.

Turn to “Take It and Smile,” a bouncy indictment against that special American hatred that seems to fill the air these days. “When it gets worse all the while, how can I just take it and smile? All the blind hatred so vile, all the pain, just take it and smile,” Clarke croons in a manner that is so upbeat that you hardly catch the gut-punch of what he’s saying. It’s a sneak-attack; a right hook to the temple on a gorgeous spring day. Similar worry is afoot on “Too Bad,” a gorgeously rich, guitar-based tapestry of discontent. Clarke sighs, “Deep inside the engine room, waves upon the frozen beach like a riptide. All control now is drifting so far out of reach.” That same upset, the anger that’s defined Clarke’s American world, slips in and out with so little fuss you hardly register its searing pathos. When you do, though, it adds a new layer to Cut Worms—one that’s tricky to pull off genuinely, and one which Clarke has become an expert at crafting.

This isn’t to say that the album is all hidden thunder and sneaky jabs. Necessary for embodying the sweet, sprawling landscape of Americana is to write about your love, and Clarke doesn’t falter there. On “Don’t Fade Out” and “I’ll Never Make It”—both unpretentious ballads on the confusion and pain of chasing a lover who’s always just over the horizon—the yearning Clarke expresses so vividly comes to the foreground just as easily when he’s describing his ever-absent object of affection, and his twinkly, straightforward storytelling propels itself with the same effortless sense of open-armed observance.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Clarke is able to, seamlessly, embody the eternal, dusty-soled cowboy from a faraway generation identity he toys with—his distinct vocals float weightlessly above the folksy instrumentals he’s perfected through over five years of performing as Cut Worms. He’s not a belter by nature, instead leaning into a smooth, self-assured head voice which melts like butter into the vocal runs and doo-wahs that permeate the albums. A steady guitar thrum anchors Cut Worms thematically and sonically—just as it features on the sparse, simple album cover. Each track is visceral and transportive, which is no small feat. To grasp at that aesthetic, Clarke is aided by an aura of clean sincerity he’s built around him; a formidable exercise in self-presentation—or, perhaps, character crafting. If it’s the former, I want to drink a foamy ale with Cut Worms and lean into the world he’s built around himself. If it’s the latter, I want to take a fiction class from him—either way, he’s got my salute.

Read our May profile on Cut Worms here.

Miranda Wollen is Paste‘s music intern. She lives in New York and attends school in Connecticut, but you can find her online @mirandakwollen.

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