With Finally Free, Daniel Romano has created an anti-capitalist, agnostic, Whitmanesque affirmation of self.
I think about Daniel Romano a lot. Maybe too much. He takes up space in my brain, and I think he knows it. He, more than most artists, is aware of how this relationship, between fan and artist, works. He is aware that is it not him I love, but what he does: he sings. Beautifully and imperfectly. Constantly. He knows I need his songs to fill that God-shaped hole in my own life. He knows because he needs them too, for similar reasons. We all need something to believe in and with all this modern pressure, we latch on to anything that comes at us fast and feels honest.
Romano’s music comes at us at a faster pace than just about any songwriter that currently exists. He is prolific in the way some hip-hop artists are, but his process requires more than just posting up in a vocal booth and being pitched beats. He writes faster than Van Morrison in his prime and rivals Bob Dylan from 1962-1970 in terms of volume of songs written. On top of that – and something I delight in reminding myself every time a new Romano comes out – is that he plays ninety-nine percent of the music himself! Dylan couldn’t have done that, Morrison couldn’t have done that, and neither could Migos or Lil Wayne. According to press materials, Finally Free is his eighth album in as many years. But that isn’t really true. Depending on what you include, it is either his seventh album in eight years, his ninth or his eleventh. Bad math or trolling aside, what is clear is that Romano is in tune with the pace and stakes of modern life and modern consumption habits. But what’s also clear is that he is gifted in a timeless fashion and it’s within that tension that the sparks fly.
Perhaps there are others who create at the same pace as the artist in question, but what amazes me most is that Romano not only writes all this music, he releases it, too. He believes in it. Earlier this year, when he put Nerveless and Human Touch online for a limited time only I was confused about what these collections were supposed to be. They featured some gems, certainly, but they mostly felt like b-sides for the 50th anniversary Modern Pressure box set. It’s still not really clear what the intention of those records was. Merely a snack for the hungry consumers that have grown accustomed to his rapid release schedule? A failed attempt at a follow up to Modern Pressure, not weak enough to shelf but not strong enough to put much capital behind? Was it a rare moment of trying to recreate what he had already done and ride the wave of Modern Pressure’s relative success? Was Nerveless the ghostly follow-up and Human Touch the sombre funeral for this failed attempt at recapturing the magic?
I’m not sure what those albums are exactly, and maybe I will never know, but I can’t shake the feeling that Romano didn’t really feel like these collections were up to his standards. These standards can shift of course — take the slow and steady embrace of his work as Ancient Shapes and the gradual trickle of Attack in Black rarities and reissues into the world as examples — but something tells me Nerveless and Human Touch are destined to become gold on the MP3 black market. That something is Finally Free, Romano’s most sincere, open, and challenging record yet.
Finally Free lacks the immediacy of Modern Pressure, the exuberance of Mosey, and the pristine production quality of nearly all his records released under his “birth moniker”. It is the first Romano album that is a true grower. This collection of songs is dense, personal, and spiritual; if you are willing to put in the work there is a tremendous payoff. It’s the first time since Workin’ For The Music Man that he really sounds like “himself”. He wears no hat, proverbial or otherwise. That said, his voice is more refined and versatile than ever, a consistent reminder of the depth and distance of his musical journey. It is a fine wine. Finally Free’s thesis, “sing, sing, sing, it’s everything,” is put into practice across the whole record. Romano sings for his life and for his right to keep singing on the breathtaking and bold “Have You Arrival” and shows his restraint on the eternal “All The Reaching Trims”.
Essential to the album’s sound is the way it was recorded — with one microphone, that did not move. The lyrics came to him, more or less, all of a sudden and the songs were “written as they were recorded.” It is a slight irony that an album called Finally Free was made in a way that might seem fraught with limitations. Instead, it gives the songs a loose and raw feel that mirrors a grand unshackling from expectation and the artifice of dying industry. There are moments that are reminiscent of his previous work, like “The Long Mirror of Time”, but the instruments are stripped of their facades and presented as authentically as they were captured through that lone mic. This also means that there aren’t many drums or electric instruments to lean on. This batch of songs is kept sturdy and strong with various handheld percussion, acoustic guitar, and that goddamn voice. There are also no interludes to be found here and few effects. If you’re looking for common song structure, Finally Free is the wrong Romano album for you.
It is also the first Daniel Romano that doesn’t have much of a sense of humour about it. But, it does sound like he had fun making it and more than that, perhaps, it was a life-affirming experience. Pay attention to the intentionally audible “woo” Romano lets out during the climax of “There’s Beauty in the Vibrant Form” and you can briefly grasp his elation. “In love with my miracle mind, I’m liberated in the language of love” he sings during “Between the Blades of Grass.” This self-acceptance and embrace of his gift could be taken as pomposity if it didn’t seem like it was a difficult and counter-instinctual realization to arrive at. He scoffs at the idea of “music-as-competitive-sport” and “for–profit–prize–corporations,” even including this quote, attributed to an “Unnamed Subjugate,” in this description of Finally Free: “No matter what he does, everything he puts out is better than anything else being put out by anyone else.” The point is that all this praise, accolades, and reverence can and should make you — both the subject and the consumer — skeptical. For Romano to arrive at loving his own mind on his own must have been a deeply personal, revelatory, and freeing experience.
With Finally Free, Daniel Romano has created an anti-capitalist, agnostic, Whitmanesque affirmation of self. It is a case for primal expression and a case for art as true transcendence and salvation. It is an album of new-age-traditional-folk music that acknowledges and is deeply informed by a profound sense that the new age is a dark age and all that we’ve put our faith in — that is not love or art — will fail us, inevitably. It is a portrait of an artist coming to a profound understanding of his impulses and a brave acceptance of life, death, and the worthiness of existence. This is Romano completely unafraid and an invitation to the listeners to join him in his fearlessness. He does not hide behind any reaching trim, clever turn, or trick. I believe he is free. Many compliments.