The Imposter / Kevin Max
In The Imposter, Kevin Max encourages, above all else, honesty from his listeners. He provides no less—it is an album in which the central themes insist that the most royal path we can take is when we eschew the identity thrust onto us by the media, fashion magazines, and religious organizations and instead strip ourselves down to our bare bones by embracing total honesty and individuality. Sometimes we might not like what’s left, but such dislike is the first step in losing our counterfeit selves, which has been made in our society’s image. The final revelation of such a notion (found in the concluding song of the album, “Fade to Red”) is ultimately staggering and—in a world wracked with war and natural disasters—timely: “Inside, I am just like you.” It’s so simple that it hits us like a two-by-four between the eyes.
Before I continue, since honesty is the name of the game here, let me lay out my prejudices for Kevin Max right off the bat: His debut LP, 2001’s Stereotype Be, is one of my desert island albums. It is a brilliant, progressive piece of work that is really unlike any album I have ever heard before or since, and it immediately ranked Kevin Max in my mind as comparable to other, great American songwriters like Bob Dylan, and, more recently, Jeff Buckley and Joseph Arthur, who are known for their ability to fuse haunting, socially relevant images with spiritual, probing lyrics, presented in utterly unpredictable music.
I think Max’s brilliance in Stereotype Be was drawing multiple, clear influences and mixing them into a blender, to reveal how the sounds work together when combined. We essentially hear U2 spliced with Sting, spliced with Beatles, spliced with hip-hop, spliced with spoken word, spliced with Buckley, throw in a little folk, a little gospel, etc. It was an eccentric, almost schizophrenic album that worked because of A) its audacity, and B) Max's stupendous voice and cryptic but powerfully insightful lyrics holding the project together. If the influences were clear, they were supposed to be, and the point was for us to listen to this wide range of clear influences all mixed together, to show that the album couldn't be stereotyped. In years to come, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stereotype Be gets ranked among one of the most memorable and invigorating albums of the decade.
In light of my love for Stereotype Be, I must make another confession: My first listen to The Imposter produced a sting of disappointment. The truth is, I initially found it lacking the overall scope and kaleidoscope-like diversity of Max’s first album, in which I believed that album’s greatness revealed itself. Gone are the clear, world-music influences. Gone are the haunting, cryptic lyrics (“And the raven in the tower clock / Spins poetry and devil talk, / And the woman by the endless well / She draws water from the mouth of hell” ). Gone are the spoken-word segments, which brought an essential sense of grounding and calm in what was otherwise a fast-paced, hyperactive body of work. It seemed that all of my favorite elements of Stereotype Be had been replaced by completely different ideas and musical directions, and such diversity was sorely missed.
But then, on my second listen to the album, a funny thing happened. I realized that the theme of The Imposter was, indeed, the stripping down of all of our society-created layers and expectations put on us (“Be all that you can be,” right?) in order to find our true selves. Should it be surprising or disappointing, then, that Kevin Max does no less to his artistic approach to such a premise? It was only with this realization that The Imposter’s genius revealed itself to me. Instead of giving us a follow-up to Stereotype Be, Max makes a far bolder move: He completely reinvents himself with an album that takes an entirely different direction. This is not Stereotype Be’s sequel, but its anti-thesis.
The result is a piece of work less about enigmatic poetry and frenzied technique and more about honest, simple words and quiet, soulful mood. The lyrics are therefore less cryptic and more probing and soul-searching. The music is less wildly-stylized and instead simpler and rawer, with clear, less frantic musical deviations from song to song. Quite frankly, this is just a subtler, clearer album in which Max eschews expectations placed on him to outdo himself with Stereotype Be and instead lays out, plain and clear, his soul. Stereotype Be proved what Max could do. The Imposter shows who he is.
Not to say that The Imposter compromises Max’s poetic edge. Max’s imagery is as powerful as it has ever been, and just as enduring. I think the difference here is that Max utilizes his lyrics to wrap around clear, tangible ideas—to heighten the depths of an abstract thought, whereas in Stereotype Be, the lyrics were shrouded in a bit more mystery, and the more we listened to them, the more impenetrable the song became. An example of his approach to lyrics in The Imposter (from the song “Stay”): “Oh the politics of love and not feeling loved / I know you, you doubted me all along / Even when I told you that you were the one / and in the street I left a lonely rose / that no one knows, and no one knows but me.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a love song this probing on the Top Forty, but it is at least accessible to such an audience, and more challenging. In contrast, radio-friendly listeners probably wouldn’t know what to do with lyrics like, “Like a cherub left to gather moss / like a ship without a sail that’s tossed, / like a vassal to his kingdom lost, / my soul so pale” (from Stereotype Be’s “Dead End Moon”). The Imposter is far more accessible to the layman.
Max also continues to reveal his depth as an artist in his wide-ranging utilization of various musical genres. Each genre is more contained within individual songs than in Stereotype Be, which preferred to mix various elements into the same song (the seamless transition from Middle Eastern to hip hop in the song “Existence” still gives me chills), but then, that’s the point: The Imposter is too longing, too soul-searching to allow the constant blending of styles to distract us from its themes. Most of the fast, more upbeat songs have a distinct, 80s rock flavor (as in, Echo and the Bunnymen, not Twisted Sister), and it’s a nice memory. “Jumpstart Your Electric Heart” is probably the showstopper, with the catchiest tune and most quotable lyrics. The quieter moments in the album, however, are the most powerful: A haunting defense of faith in “Your Beautiful Mind,” which is a very moving combination of anthem and ballad; a toe-curling, southern gospel-influenced cover of Bob Dylan’s “When He Returns” that relies heavily on Max’s spectacular vocal range; and, the true highlight of the album, “Fade to Red,” a slow, penetrating look at an unspecified, futurist apocalypse that caps the album with the revelation that it will probably be man’s own selfishness that will destroy the world, even though as the Earth finally goes up in flames, we’ll realize too late that we’re all in this together. It’s a simultaneously bleak and hopeful observation.
So, the question remains: If Max reveals his soul in The Imposter, what he is ultimately saying about himself? His most obvious appeal is that he’s worth more than the sum of the parts that he has often found himself labeled under. Because of his immediate associations with his former band, the Contemporary Christian sensation dc Talk, Max is often expected to conform to the patterns of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) business: Faithful to and never questioning the Church or its doctrine. Max has never adhered to this notion; he prefers to create music for the masses that explores various spiritual questions without limiting himself to one particular group, especially one whose primary interest is in evangelism. Certainly Max’s lyrics are spiritual, but not overtly so: His content is similar to the music of Bob Dylan, Sting, and Joseph Arthur, meaning that faith and mysticism is sprinkled into the ingredients of the album without any specific agenda except to explore and share his own approach to spirituality. This is not a “Christian” album, but it is a deeply devout one. The CCM business prefers direct, evangelical songs, and since Max is not interested in promoting their curriculum, they often call to question Max’s personal life (a recent divorce, his split from dc Talk, off-center remarks made years ago, etc.) in an effort to undermine his art. The Imposter reveals an artist still healing from such smears, but also one who is undeterred in his vision to create music for the world arena. This album is his manifesto—it unapologetically reveals who he is, what he does, and why he does it. It showcases his flaws (“If the truth didn't hurt so much then I wouldn't lie”) and his triumphs (“I know I'm giving up the imposter in me ”) in equal proportion. If Stereotype Be left us wondering, “Who is this guy?”, The Imposter boldly answers that question, and dares to declare, “Take it or leave it, but you can’t ignore it.”
It’s noteworthy that I have frequently mentioned Bob Dylan in this review, as The Imposter was released only a few weeks after the premier of Martin Scorsese' brilliant documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. It seems to me that Dylan and Kevin Max experienced a similar plight throughout their careers—a matter of the musician's desire to create their own art and challenge themselves vs. the media and the audience’s demands based on the public perception of the artist that they, not the artist, have created. It's hard to believe that there was a time when Dylan was booed off the stage and called a traitor, but he pulled through and continued to challenge himself by making ever-evolving art. He's still a legend, and he certainly survived his unfair public, who now love him more than ever.
The CCM is part of that dissenting voice against Max; they will continue to boo and try to fit him into their box, but this will only make Max's strength as an envelope-pushing artist grow. Eventually, the dissent will turn into respect, as it did for Dylan. My favorite part in the Scorsese documentary is when Dylan looks at his band amidst the audience's boos and says, "Play it f---ing loud." Max should do the same, and does so with The Imposter. He has given us the best rock album of the year.
Released by Northern Records on October 19, 2005. Produced by Andy Prickett and Kevin Max.
1. Confessional Booth
2. The Imposter
4. Your Beautiful Mind
5. Jumpstart Your Electric Heart!
7. The Royal Path of Life
8. The Imposter’s Song
10. I Need You, The End
11. When He Returns
12. Fade to Red (Antigalaxy)
13. Letting Go (hidden track)
Running time: 60:00
Studio Player Listing:
Kevin Max: vox and keys
Andrew D Prickett: guitars and keys
Lord Byron Hagen: keyboards
Elijah Thomson: bass
Aaron Sterling and Frank Lenz: drums
Erick Cole: guitar
Click here to buy The Imposter.
Click here to buy Stereotype Be.
Kevin Max official website.