Eef Barzelay has come to terms with disasters derailing his musical career. As his band, Clem Snide, spent the summer of 2001 gearing up to tour in support of their breakthrough LP, The Ghost of Fashion, all plans were suddenly halted after Sept. 11. “We had a big, cross-country, national tour that started on Sept. 8, 2001,” Barzelay explained to me from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “We were in Memphis, three or four nights into our tour when those planes hit. Needless to say, that wasn’t a particularly good time to be on the road for a number of reasons.” The album nonetheless managed to find an audience while earning plaudits from critics. “It’s really crazy how these things work out for me,” Barzelay said. Now, with a worldwide pandemic showing no signs of letting up anytime soon, Barzelay is resurrecting Clem Snide after five years away, with his just-released Forever Just Beyond.
Clem Snide began as a trio in Boston but now exists as a solo project in Nashville―with the help of a few trusty collaborators. Clem Snide as a group hasn’t been the same since their stellar 2010 release, The Meat of Life, on which the band’s renegade interpretation of alt-country music clashed ecstatically with experimentalism and avant-garde narratives. The band’s name, after all, is derived from the famed William S. Burroughs character.
Since then, the band fell apart, Barzelay stared down bankruptcy, and his marriage faced significant hurdles as the realities of being a touring musician seemed to be a direct contradiction with traditional fatherly duties. Much of Forever Just Beyond meditates on this unnavigable pull toward music and away from familial responsibilities and traditional income, a sobering and unflinching self-portrait of an artist who truly believes his calling exists in multiple realms. Barzelay spent weeks on various tours over the past few years listening to an audiobook of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, an exploration of the tensions between ethics and duty that illuminated Barzelay’s own personal struggles.
“Kierkegaard spends the entire book meditating on Abraham, those three days when God commands him to go sacrifice Isaac and he doesn’t know where he’s going. God’s going to show him, but for three days he travels into the wilderness with his son. Kierkegaard meditates on what was going through his mind. That really cuts to the very heart of it all,” said Barzelay. “Not to compare myself with Abraham, but I think I understand that struggle. On the one hand, you feel called to do something like I have felt called to make music and to write songs ever since I was in high school. This is just what I have to do. I knew that I would just do it, regardless of what level of success I achieved. This is my fate. I committed to it. I feel that very strongly,” he said.
But as he’s aged, his relationship with his wife and children has matured, too. He’s more introspective, more willing to dive into his own complicity regarding his successes and failures―both personally and professionally. “I had a family and it became very much a conflict between whether I do the music or whether I support my family. That is a very, very painful conflict you have to contend with. That’s been my great challenge, just trying to be a father and a husband and to support a family, but then also to make the music and to tour and do all that,” he said, before concluding: “Had I never been married and had kids, I don’t know. I’d probably be dead by now, but whatever. That’s been my struggle.”
Forever Just Beyond reckons with the things Barzelay leaves in his wake. Made with Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, the duo collaborated on a few of the songs and recorded the album at Avett’s farm in North Carolina. The album immediately and intensely confronts death, with opener “Roger Ebert” using the famed film critic’s dying words to find beauty in the sorrow of the end. “That’s where the rubber meets the road: What happens after you die? If you really believe that after you die that’s it, that all there is is this life and your body, first of all, you’re wrong because that doesn’t even make any sense at all,” explained Barzelay with a chuckle. “The more spiritual perspective just makes so much sense to me, if we’re just trying to approach it from a sensible perspective. Isn’t that what it all comes down to? How do you regard yourself and your life if you feel like that’s all there is or when you die all is revealed? To me, that makes all the difference in life.” In the song, Barzelay takes Ebert’s dying words, “It’s all an elaborate hoax,” and turns it into a beautiful prayer on the road that leads us there. “There is a vastness that can’t be contained/Described as a thought in the flesh of our brain/It’s everything, everywhere, future and past/Dissolving together in an eternal flash,” he sings.
Barzelay’s life philosophy can be loosely described as intensely agnostic, with the musician not necessarily aligned to a certain religion, but devoted to the teachings of an altruistic and all-loving God. Barzelay grew up in Israel, the son of kibbutzniks, which he jollily labeled the rednecks of Israel. Instead of practicing traditional Judaism, however, Barzelay’s family practiced a secular form of communism that initially served as the roots of the kibbutz movement. “My grandparents were communists, Zionist communists,” explained Barzelay. “Zionism and communism have a lot in common. Part of their communism was to reject religion and to embrace something much closer to Zionism. We grew up not just not religious, but almost anti-religious.” Barzelay departed Israel for New Jersey when he was 6, and with that, left much of that philosophy behind. While Barzelay spent his teenage years defining himself as American first and Jewish second, his approach toward religion is now at the forefront, using the linked themes of a variety of faiths which center around kindness and spirituality.
There’s a certain logic to Barzelay’s turn toward religion as his band deteriorated into a solo project. Resurrecting a one-time widely popular act with Forever Just Beyond, Barzelay has concocted his best album since his original band dissolved. It’s heartfelt but funny, genuine without becoming saccharine. On “The Stuff of Us,” he sings gently over a warm acoustic guitar: “Almost Biblical scenes unfold/Somewhere they’re deep in our mind.” It’s a welcome reminder that the stories we are told transcend earthly consciousness, but also root us in reality.
With the way Barzelay’s career has unfolded, he can’t help but see a unique similarity to his unending plight to that of the Jewish people. “I think the history of Clem Snide and myself mirrors the history of the Jewish people, if I may be so bold, in so far as it’s mostly a long and tragic history. Certainly the last 10 years have been tough just because that’s when everything finally bottomed out.” One gets the sense that he was kidding, but only sort of. “There were some good opportunities and some great things that happened, but as a business we couldn’t get it to the point where people actually made money. Naturally, it’s hard to keep something like that going. Then there were some hard feelings as a result. After all was said and done, I was the last man standing,” he said.
It’s a story of perseverance, of finding faith when little reason to do so remains. Just as he canceled a national tour behind a breakout album following the events of Sept. 11, Barzelay must confront the ironic possibility that a global pandemic threatens to undermine another major tour once again. These are small complaints as the world crumbles each day, over and over again, but the weight of coincidence weighs strongly in Barzelay’s mind. “I’ve become very religious in a sense, even though I was raised by godless Jews. Life ultimately comes down to how you process your own suffering. If you’re able to confront your own existential suffering without becoming bitter, life goes much better for you. I think our culture is so secular in that way that it doesn’t give you any way to convert your sorrow into grace.” He laughed at the silliness of this whole endeavor, trying to wrap up a lifetime’s worth of religious and spiritual wanderings into a tidy quote. He did, though, find one last reason to keep explaining. “I think you can find your way to God, and however you do is the correct way. That’s between you and God. This might all be some sort of heresy in the end, but I don’t think it is. I’m an anti-atheist, if anything.” There’s a sense of relief and release throughout Forever Just Beyond, a blind faith that things will continue to be OK enough to continue.
Will Schube is a writer and filmmaker based in Austin, Texas.