We have been waiting with bated breath for the debut album by David Duchovny, actor, and finally, finally, it is here.
As one of the few people I know who is actually looking forward to Aquarius, Duchovny’s forthcoming NBC series in which he plays a detective investigating a certain little cult leader who goes by the name of Charles Manson (highly plausible!), I assigned myself to give Hell or Highwater a thorough listen and apply my gimlet critical eye to its copious power chords and abiding dedication to Tom Petty vocal slough.
David Duchovny, actor, has been experiencing an artistic renaissance as of late; apart from Aquarius and the just-announced return to the X-Files, he also somehow found the time to publish a tome entitled Holy Cow: A Modern-Day Dairy Tale, which follows the travails of a cow named Elsie who escapes the industrial slaughterhouse and journeys to India with an equally endangered turkey and pig, creating peace in the Middle East along the way. (If this book sounds interesting, I highly recommend reading this review.) Hank Moody, Duchovny’s oft-drunk novelist character on the now-defunct Californication, seems to have rubbed off on the actor; Moody was always having sex, and quite often drunk. A Holy Cow excerpt:
“I like me a feisty bitch,” the dog growled comically. “Well, all right now. Look at you standing tall on your hindies — you go, girl. Can I holla at ya? Can I holla? Can I holla?”
The heated howl of can I holla rang in my ears, pulsed in my veins as I hit play on Hell or Highwater for the first time. It can be jarring to first hear the singing voice of a man whose speaking voice has been a presence your whole life. After the initial strums of acoustic guitar, I was bombarded by the sound of Fox Mulder crooning as forlornly as a man on his last cigarette: “If you knew me you would stay/If you knew me you would walk away. We don’t get black and white/ours is only shadow light.” Enter a crescendoing drum fill and the warm bent-string twang of a Gretsch, or other classic guitar, connoting Americana, classic rock, and the emotional fortitude of an adult male having a moment of mid-level depth and self-serving reflection. “You can’t hurt the one you already left behind,” he sings, “Walk it back baby, take another breath/rewind/let it rain.”
Let it rain, he says. It’s hard to divorce the essence of this music from Duchovny’s character as Hank Moody, an emotional badboy whose interactions with the love of his life are always hampered by misalignment of the stars and the frequent misplacement of his dick. (You can’t feel sorry for yourself if you bone everything that moves, Hank Moody!) It’s not that Duchovny is that exact man, per se (though he did reportedly have a fun dalliance with sex rehab), but it does illustrate the pitfalls of lifelong actors who take a left turn midway through to release albums—your best-known characters become entangled with your music, art informs art, a hazard of being rich and famous and successful. (To be fair, when Steve Earle joined the cast of The Wire, for instance, I could never look at his character and not think, “Hey, that’s Steve Earle.” Maybe things were different for Kris Kristofferson?)
That said, listening to this emotionally somber break-up record feels like the ookiest parts of Californication because of its lyrical proximity to the plotline, as well as the parallels with good-ol-whiteboy rock tunes they blasted, and deified, on the soundtrack. “Don’t know who to talk to,” Duchovny intones in a low register on the melodramatically titled “Lately It’s Always December.” “Don’t know what hand to hold/don’t know who to hang up on/or how to keep the fool from fool’s gold.” Hell or Highwater is awash in rote folk-influenced bar rock blanketed with exhausted, meaningless tropes like “gypsy ways” and rain as metaphor (two times!), another entry into the hallowed, played rock archetype of the rugged white male loner taking on the road. It sounds like Duchovny fulfilling long-lost rockstar dreams because that’s what it is, an exertion of the kind of agency both celebrities and white men enjoy—the ability to enact their whims.
That is not to say this album is not entertaining. While the lyrics are, for the most part, significantly more coherent than some of the excerpts I’ve read from Holy Cow, it does have its high points. The song titled “Positively Madison Avenue,” a politically charged fable about capitalism in the land of failed dreams (I think), unfurls as follows:
Jokerman takes off his mask/reveals a car salesman at last
Says, “Grow up son, you know it’s just a masquerade”/Now be a good boy and get me and the boss some Gatorade
You can work up quite a thirst /watching all them bubbles burst
I was following Gandhi on the Twitter/he tweeted, “Son i don’t like to see you bitter”
But if you wanna get in this kind of shape well, abstinence and a protein shake
Here’s the wild thing: once you get over the fact of David Duchovny singing at you, and separate the image of him riding around LA in a black Porsche making babies with babies a la Californication, his voice is not bad. He’s pitchy at times, but for a vanity rock project, it could be worse; while I revile the pedestalization of loner rock dudes, I appreciate that he’s staying in his lane, working within the rubric he knows best. It’s no Aleka’s Attic, but at least it’s not Dogstar. Or a rap album.
Image via Getty
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