Cynicism is the best defense when graft and injustice hold sway. If things get worse than that, nihilism is the next logical step. Oakland-based singer-songwriter Greg Ashley, formerly of the psych outfit the Gris-Gris, opens his fourth solo offering, Pictures of Saint Paul Street, by bringing listeners up to speed on the rules of a world in which to play is to lose.
In just over three minutes, the upbeat “Sea of Suckers” details every awful step in the descent from an unhappy relationship to the humiliation of a stint in detox. “My crazy junky bunkmate, he would puke and piss and gyrate, and the pills they gave us made us crazy bored, crazy for more,” Ashley sings with sneering glee, accepting that there is no escape from the destructive forces that beset him from outside and within. Pictures is Ashley’s strongest statement to date. By examining both societal and personal failings, he delivers a pitch perfect encapsulation of a political moment in which every pretense of order and justice has been laid bare and embracing oblivion is the only sensible choice.
His self-deprecating, deeply confessional approach places him in the company of lonesome bedroom brooders like Vic Chesnutt and East River Pipe. However, Ashley, a skilled engineer and producer in his own right, eschews their minimalism for a well-rounded musicality that is more in keeping with artists from generations removed, such as Lou Reed, Hank Williams, and Leonard Cohen (Ashley covered Death of a Ladies’ Man in full in 2012).
Though Ashley portrays himself as a misanthrope, the accessibility of his songs, which are given to snappy tempos, bright keys and joyful sprays of electric organ, drawing upon elements of blues, jazz and country paint a more conflicted picture. While he may find himself at odds with the world at large, he’d rather live in it and suffer with self-awareness than cloister himself away. “Journalism’s dead, so propaganda does me the favor/it’s giving me the news, I’m just an idealistic sucker/I’m giving up on dreams, I’m through with you worthless motherfuckers,” he sings on “Goodbye Saint Paul Street” a meditation on gentrification in which Saint Paul Street is a stand in for the San Pablo Avenue of Oakland, where he has long resided. “The only thing respected is violence and greed,” he concludes by the end of the verse.
For all his musical proficiency, Ashley shines brightest in his lyricism. His thoughtful and understated vocal delivery underscores his status as an everyman, put upon by both circumstances of his own creation and the values of a square society. He is clever and crude in equal measure, but always cutting. On the whole, his words are carefully measured and long on poetry, so when he opts for bluntness, he does so to great effect, as on “Bullshit Society” in which he pleads: “It’s a police state! And you’re a debt slave! It’s a police state! You pray for class war, class war, class war, class war!”
Ashley succeeds by connecting the dots between the microeconomics of the interpersonal and the macroeconomics of the sociopolitical. The self-justifications and bargaining that enable chemical dependency are really not so different from the compromises that allow greed and corruption to thrive. The only way to salvage some dignity is to acknowledge the inherent and inescapable unfairness.
In Ashley’s estimation no one is innocent, everyone suffers as a result and, given human nature, there is no alternative. To participate in society is to compromise and whether you accept or reject the rules on offer, suffering is always the result. On the album closer, “Six A.M. at the Black and White,” he sums his argument up masterfully. “We know America’s insane/Became an alcoholic for the pain,” he sings. “But I’ll never join them as a slave/With a bullshit degree that doesn’t pay/The world’s an ashtray anyways/We couldn’t have it any other way.”