The cover of Greil Marcus’ recent book Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs captures some of Dylan’s most famous works in abstract, sometimes surreal, images. A flower grows out of a broken guitar, a snake’s fangs are sharpened, a sign for Highway 61 stands in the moonlight. The images feel like snapshots of moments in time that might never have happened in the first place.
The images were designed by Max Clarke, who performs music under the name Cut Worms. His new album, also called Cut Worms, has a picture of Clarke on the cover against a white backdrop, like he’s been cropped out of a photo. That’s what his music sounds like, too. He creates sonic snapshots—delightful trips in the direction of 1950s and 1960s folk music that he calls “pop essentialism.”
Think of a track like The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe”—an emphatic hook, a steady chord progression, a guitar solo that lightly tiptoes into psychedelia, lyrics that make the singer sound like he’s standing above a crowd, making a declaration to the world: “All I need is the air that I breathe / and to love you.” This is the template for Cut Worms, and it’s a good one.
“Don’t fade out on me,” Clarke sings in the opening track, and he might as well be talking about the style of music that he’s playing. The song is light as air, with a buoyant piano backing Clarke as he complains of “talking in circles to myself in the dark, can’t get myself to say the things in my heart.” He yearns for the clarity that a group like The Hollies could so easily present in years gone by. Things have grown more complicated in the world: “stay right here,” he says, “where love will always be.”
A couple tracks down, on the album’s single, “Ballad of the Texas King,” Clarke sings of walking along on a California night with no one at all and “no law to fight.” The lyrics don’t provide a clear picture of what happens next, when a long black car pulls up alongside him and offers to show him the “meaning of hell,” going on to say “boy, just let me tell you, that’s where you are.”
He’s separated from a love, urges her not to cry, tells her he’s found a new song, and at the song’s end promises, “I’ll be right by your side from Paradise to El Paso.” Is it a roundabout way to describe a move from California to Texas, perhaps hinting at the recent Texas population boom. But if it’s all an abstract vision that gets Cut Worms from A to B, then it’s a very pleasant one. He sings with emphasis as the swirling horns and guitar-picking surround him.
Cut Worms is romantic music, evocative of a past that feels hazy and specific at the same time. There’s not much room for doom and gloom here—it’s all around us, Clarke seems to be saying, so let’s just enjoy this moment. It’s visual music as well. He might not be painting the clearest picture, but the abstractions let the listener fill in the blanks. He’s lost in the sound, and there’s no better place to be.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.