By Mark Guarino
Five years ago, when Chicago area songwriter Robbie Fulks began writing songs with titles like “She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died),” two things were certain: he’d reap a lot of praise for their novelty and he’d get sick of them quick.
“I didn’t want to have a schtick going or be a performing monkey,” he said. “I had my fill of writing genre songs.”
Those songs — sardonic wit with a Buck Owens-type shuffle beat — resulted in the kind of attention most songwriters dream of. Over the course of four albums, Fulks became a poster boy for people fed up with the spoon-fed country music of ‘90s Nashville. In quick succession, he became the subject of countless magazine and newspaper features (“I’ve got tons of good press, which just illustrates the lack of power of good press,” he noted), enjoyed exposure on national television, made a pop-rock album on a major label, and this year was in the unlikely position, along with his roster mates on the Chicago label Bloodshot, of posing for a fashion spread in GQ.
But at the edge of all that attention were flags it wouldn’t necessarily last. The pop country commercialism Fulks lampooned in song, print and on stage (he once played part of a show at FitzGerald’s in drag, dressed as Shania Twain), hit its peak by the late ‘90s. Sales were in decline, resulting in format switchovers for country stations nationwide (Chicago now has just one). Even Garth Brooks — the arena superstar that defined pop country over the past decade — announced his retirement.
Fulks himself hit walls. “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” the slick pop-rock album he made for Geffen, ended up a low label priority and was not properly pushed, especially when the label became snarled in corporate mergers. He left the label and turned his sights on the alt.country genre itself. The result was a phony greatest hits package riddled with new songs firing strikes at own fans (“Roots Rock Weirdos”) and one professing a crush on doe-eyed Bangles guitarist Susanna Hoffs (“That Bangle Girl”).
“I was at a little bit of a standstill,” he admitted from his home in Lindenhurst. “And I didn’t want to stand in one place for year and years.”
So for the past three years, he wrote the songs that ended up on his new album, “Couples In Trouble” (Boondoggle Records), released this week. It’s the kind of departure album you want a songwriter the caliber of Fulks to write, yet may be hesitant hearing at first. But “Couples In Trouble” is his strongest album so far and far afield from his others, a progression flexing his grip on multiple genres. Instead of mining the strictly roped off worlds of country and pop like he had in the past, Fulks, an admitted avid reader, turned to literature.
The songs are purposely deceptive, sounding like found stories that have existed for years, packed full tilt with detail and barking with the voices of distinctly different characters. Instead of following the typical pop song formula of verse-chorus-verse, he combed through Emily Dickinson poems to learn how to reduce the role of the chorus and make near-rhymes and non-rhymes work in a song.
The lyrics are far afield from previous albums, instead bordering between abstract lyricism and strict storytelling, like the smartest work of Elvis Costello. Although he favored East Coast short fiction writers like John Cheever or John Updike, the songs themselves sound more in line with the wrecked Southern worlds of Barry Hannah or James Dickey. In the boozy “Brenda’s New Stepfather,” Fulks wickedly sends up one of the creepiest family relationships since The Who’s Uncle Ernie and “Real Money” — the album’s standout track — there is a creepy underbelly of kidnapping, young lust and violence atop a sly soul groove.
The liner notes read like a who’s who of unsung Chicago musical heroes like sax playing songwriter John Fournier, drummers Dan Massey and Gerald Dowd, bassist Brett Simons, powerhouse country vocalist Joy Lynn White and fiddle player Kathleen Keane.
The more abstract aesthetic was aided by indie rock engineering maverick Steve Albini, who wove some bridges between songs. Although the literary worlds were absorbed in writing the songs, only one sounds far in that extreme — “My Tormentor,” a song of somber delicacy balanced by piano and strings. Others — the pop rock “Mad At A Girl” and soulful “Anything For Love” — blush with oscillating melodies, unexpected turns around the corner that explode and lyrical worlds that have a kind of bent reality.
Half way through recording, Fulks sent what he had to a dozen labels that had shown interest in putting out his next record. When they heard it was a departure from what they knew, half of the labels “quickly ducked behind the bushes” he said.
The other half offered what Geffen had previously put on the table: a multiple album contract plus a small royalty rate. Fulks walked away.
“It’s too high a price to…be with a company for the next five years. To me, the next five or six years is the rest of my career. I don’t see myself doing this at 50. It’s a young man’s trade, going out in a van 100 days a year. I’d rather be doing something else,” he said. “I had been thinking for awhile about trying it on my own and because this was the proverbial departure record and that was creating some problems with some of the people…my wife and I thought this was the one to try it out on,” he said.
One label that passed was Bloodshot, his home for his first two albums. Instead, the label will help distribute the record in stores while Fulks also offers it on his website.
“The record isn’t really a Bloodshot record,” explained Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller. “We thought having the Bloodshot name on it might unduly influence people who love him from the country stuff and might be disappointed that its not a consistently country record. Or affect the people who don’t like Bloodshot because they don’t like country and wouldn’t give it a chance.”
Miller admits it took a few listens himself to understand where Fulks was heading. “It’s a ballsy move on his part, especially given the climate of music today where everyone listens to (albums) once and discards or embraces them. This one takes a lot of perseverance.”
Fulks will play a CD launch party tonight at Martyrs, where he’ll be joined by a few players on the album, including some players in his past bands and Fournier who will lead a horn section.
The change in direction follows other recent life moves. Two years ago he moved from Brookfield to Lindenhurst, with his two kids and wife Donna, a voiceover artist and actress. Playing over 100 dates a year, he thought it best to be near inlaws for babysitting duties.
He also stumbled upon a second career as an essayist. After writing a column on his website to try to induce return hits, he began getting requests from different publications that wanted to reprint them. He is now in discussions with a literary agent interested in collecting them in a book and one of them — about dealing with beaurocrats from the IRS — just made Nick Hornsby’s forthcoming Best Rock Writing annual.
“It’s amazing to me that for sitting down at night and writing these stupid things to keep people coming to the website, that in a short amount of time, it’s led to other things. Whereas, I’ve been doing this music thing for 30 years and have been barely pumping life into it year after year,” Fulks said, laughing. “I mean, it’s the thing that I really do.”