09/21/2017 03:05 pm ET

Reviewing My Own Album: ‘My Life’s Work’

As national “conversations” reach a fever pitch and everything becomes politicized and polarized, here I come with my new single “Status Update,” the leading track in an open-ended, made-for-YouTube album called My Life’s Work that will unfold as a playlist of music videos on my YouTube channel. The idea is to add to it for the rest of my life. It should be interesting for us to see how my style and sensibilities change over time, or interesting for me at the very least. I’m well aware that we are living in a fractured media landscape and that I’m the only person on earth I can rely on to give my work the kind of attention it needs.

In “Status Update,” I offer a similar energy to that of the first track off Mud Scholar’s sophomore album Cold, Lonely Sweat, with a spine of crude guitar strums (I don’t have the best muting technique) and lyrics that spell out my current state of affairs. It should be noted that My Life’s Work isn’t released under the old nom de guerre, Mud Scholar, but rather my given name, Alex McKelvey, in a broader effort to consolidate all of my projects under one umbrella and thereby strengthen my personal brand. While this was a practical choice, it serendipitously lends itself to the character of the song, which is a coming-of-age anthem that rings truer to myself than any of my previous work.

“I’m a grown man now with a humbler spirit. If I loved my online oeuvre once, now I find I fear it. These days I’m hung up on legacy, so there’ll be no more talk of dick in my discography,” I muse in the pre-chorus of “Status Update,” alluding to Mud Scholar’s debut album, which received a lukewarm writeup in Flagpole Magazine seven years ago. Gordon Lamb wrote: “Appropriately titled, A Must for the Dick, the music itself is a blend of singer-songwriter-ish tunes matched with some decent arrangements, but I’m still on the fence about its overall effect.” Not wanting this to be the only mention of my solo work on the public record, I began contributing to the HuffPost blog with the intention of penning my own review at some point, and that’s what you’re trudging through here.

Alex McKelvey

As far as vanity projects go, “Status Update” is an admirable effort, but I will say my musicianship takes a backseat to my lyrics. I could’ve used the song, recorded and mixed by Rafael Joson, as an opportunity to go places, sonically, I hadn’t been before, but instead I chose to splash around in familiar waters. This owes, in part, to the fact that the whole project was an imposition on Rafael’s space and time. We recorded the song (and filmed part of the music video) in his bedroom on his days off, so I didn’t feel comfortable allotting hours to experimentation. The lyrics, on the other hand, took up a respectable amount of my time. I wrote them earlier this year, over the course of a particularly grueling week of trying to get comfortable in my own privileged skin while, at the same time, going out of my way to look cool in the eyes of my scene’s postmodern gentry.

When I say “my scene,” I’m referring to a loose group of Facebook friends based in New York who are excelling in the arts. On average, these people are amping up their political voices online and, as a general rule, they fail to engage with my content as much as I’d like them to. I guess it’s conceivable that my posts aren’t reaching their feeds, but I also have to consider the possibility that my content just isn’t calibrated to the culture in a way that would merit their sycophancy. The wise thing for me to do, of course, would be to get out and network in person, but I find it difficult. The brand of narcissism I’ve cultivated in my art has taken a serious toll on my social skills.

It appears we’ve gone down a rabbit hole here. Back to the song’s lyrics, which, if I’m going to be honest, could have been more subversive, given that “Status Update” is decidedly antifolk. But subversive against what? Almost everyone in my sphere who is worth my time excoriates the Trump administration online, and as much as I might like to join in, I prefer to cut through the clutter. Outrage seems like an appropriate response in some cases, but all too often, expressing it feels counterproductive and self-serving. If there’s one thing I like to avoid, it’s communal narcissism. I like to keep my self-servitude out in the open where everyone can see it, not peeking out between the lines of political dissertations online. So maybe this piece is subversive against mass politicization and the prevailing trend of making a show of berating the bad guys. For a while there, I made believe that this project could be a conversation piece for apolitical watercooler talk. Then I reminded myself what it is - an insufferable self-portrait playing out on multiple mediums. I’d like to see more unity, but I can’t expect people to unify around me. Furthermore, this piece has already been compromised; politics found a way in.

When I started this, I thought I might be the first to publish a DIY review, but my editor Lonnie, informed me that Arcade Fire released one for their new album. Another quick Google search, and I found Lupe Fiasco’s “only review of DROGAS Light that matters.” I’m not sure how many others are out there – Artists, vampires really – who have more than enough press as it is and yet have taken it upon themselves to leech off the novelty of my clickbait stunt. These days, I wouldn’t be able to pay somebody to review my work. This is something I had to do for myself. But whatever. I know that being “the first” at anything is next to impossible these days. The important thing is to be the best. And while ‘the best’ is subjective in the broadest sense, it is less so on an individual level. I can continue being the best artist I can be as long as I stay committed to bringing my ideas to life and speaking the truth. And, of course, the truth I know best is my own.

I’m not looking for truth the hands-on way George Orwell did when he signed up to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War. I’m sitting at my computer with a Facebook tab open, listening to my own song on repeat.  “I want to be subversive in the right direction, but I guess I’m living in the wrong town. Good guys here are fellow exhibitionists, showboats making masturbatory sounds,” I sing in the last chorus, referring to the commentators on my newsfeed who rush to find harmful subtext in Tina Fey’s cake segment on Weekend Update or who condemn Taylor Swift for being too apolitical or who trumpet exhaustion at having to see another onscreen depiction of “a brown man wanting to date a white woman.”  I like these people well enough, but I find myself wondering why they don’t focus on making their own evolved art and busy themselves writing about that? These backseat-driver displays of moral sophistication are disillusioning me.

And I hope that disillusionment comes across in the “Status Update” music video, shot by Tim Ciavara, who got some choice footage of me brooding. Some critics may reduce the video to a series of commissioned vanity shots, but it’s more than that. There’s symbolism. I’ll admit that the snakeskin shirt I wear in the video wasn’t a deliberate choice to weave Jungian undertones into the piece, but I maintain that my compulsion to buy the shirt when I saw it hanging up at the thrift shop was a subliminal move that was, altogether, brilliant. Carl Jung, who talked of the serpent as “the earthly essence of man of which he is not conscious,” saw the need to recognize our own capacity for evil. It’s a painful thing to do. “We are therefore only too delighted to choose, without a moment’s hesitation, the complicated course of remaining in ignorance about ourselves while busying ourselves with other people and their troubles and sins. This activity lends us a perceptible air of virtue, by means of which we benevolently deceive ourselves and others.This is called psychological projection, and the “masturbatory sounds” I touch on in “Status Update” refers to the rising tide of moral posturing I see in my online silo. Neo-Nazis are marching these days and our President is a caricature of amoral self-interest, so it’s easier than ever to condemn monsters and relax on the sidelines of the most prevalent manifestation of the fight between good and evil – the one that happens inside each of us. The snakeskin shirt represents the value of honest self-appraisal. We all have a snake in our grass. And on that note, please forgive me if this whole tangent has been psychological projection. This review has turned into its own display of sophistication. I’m a hypocrite, and we’ve found ourselves back in the rabbit hole. How about we tackle the casting of the music video?

Alex McKelvey

It wasn’t diverse enough. Rafael, who plays himself in the video, is half Filipino, thank God, but my friend William Carroll Brookshire IV on bass is arguably whiter than I am. While I’d rather not pander to the identity-politics buffs who like giving white people tutorials in social decorum, I will say that diversity in film is crucial. Also, there’s a new study that finds that “across every budget level, a film with a diverse cast outperforms a release not so diversified.” I should’ve taken this into account and invested here, but I was lazy; my first priority was to seek out friends who would be willing to help me for little to no money. And William was a great fit. He really took to his role and, in the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit that there were times during the shoot when I felt insecure about his performance overshadowing mine. Anyway, I maintain that the racial makeup of the music video is just how the cookie crumbled in this case. It’s either that, or there’s something backward in my psyche, in which case I’ll need to examine that and go the extra mile to ensure that the pool of artists I work with is more representative of the population next time.

There is still one elephant in the room, and it has nothing to do with the moral nature of my work. It is the glaring absence of “live drum sound” in the song. As much as I’d like to say this was an intentional artistic choice, it has more to do with the fact that my best frenemy Blaze, who I impose on to play drums on my tracks, was unavailable. As I write this, he’s on tour with The Liars. This is doubly unfortunate seeing as how Blaze would’ve been perfect for the video, as he’s half Palestinian. Good for him, though, for getting paid to tour the world; he wouldn’t have been paid for this project. Also, The Liars is a solid band, but that’s not really relevant seeing as how this is my review. Not theirs.