Timeless Home Recordings
If you happen to emerge from a decades-long slumber to find the music of Cut Worms, you might think you were still in a hazy dreamscape. Cut Worms, the recording moniker of multi-instrumentalist Max Clarke, is a home project of eight-track recordings that Clarke started working on years ago. Inspired by an old roommate who took on a daily songwriting challenge, Clarke began to write songs whenever he had the time, uploading them to his Bandcamp page for the rest of the world. Now, Clarke has become a master of the DIY aesthetic, releasing the Alien Sunset EP on Jagjaguwar this October.
Doused in reverb, the Alien Sunset EP captures the essence of autumnal romance — with enough heartbreak and introspection to rival any early 19th century poet. Clarke’s sound is characteristically oozy and homemade — much like his DIY predecessors — but something about what he does sets Alien Sunset apart the others. Maybe it’s the Lennon-esque raspiness of his voice, or the solemnity of his wailing lyrics. Maybe it’s the inherent ambiguity of his Cut Worms signature (a reference to the nocturnal insect? a diabolical and cruel command to assail worms?) — a phrase apparently drawn from a William Blake quote, “The cut worm forgives the plow.”
Regardless, Cut Worms is a rarity on the current indie scene. With several homages to seminal folk musicians, notably Nick Drake and the Everly Brothers, Alien Sunset straddles the past and the present in style. The EP is distinct in its indistinctness; the lyrics are vague and vulnerable in an otherworldly fashion.
“Don’t Want To Say Good-Bye” sets the tone right away, with reflective glitter and lyrics that ruminate over the end of a relationship. Taking after the simplistic songwriting and pseudo-doo-wop of early Beatles tracks, it’s a memorable jaunt of reluctant adoration in which Clarke wonders if the love he experienced was real in the first place. “Guess you were my baby / guess you were my only friend / guess I don’t know / if it’s real or just pretend,” echoes the brand of uncertainty and loss found throughout the record.
Titular track, “Alien Sunset,” is perhaps the bluesiest song on the album. Over bubbling guitar riffs, Clarke’s lyrics reveal that he’s made a mistake in turning down a lover’s advances. Confessional lyrics like “it took me too long” make the listener wonder what caused such heartbreak. Clarke lays his insecurities bare, albeit opaque, when he sings, “Try to hold you in high regard / Try to hold you but I hold too hard.” If you were looking for clearer answers on this track, you’ll only find more ambiguity.
Things reach a slightly clearer point on “Like Going Down Sideways.” The song opens with yearning lyrics about a long lost love, delivered over strolling xylophones and noodling guitars. “With the lights in the road, child / in the wormhole of your mind / in the black water fading / you’ve got no chance, doll, no chance at all” marks the dark and contemplative storytelling here. Yet, Clarke comments from a temporal (and at times dimensional) distance. At the song’s sunny apex, Clarke moves into a resonant chord progression, observing: “You never had a dream/you never had a love, it seems.” These lines sound more like a mantra than a chorus, a closure rather than a refrain, and the song comes to a reincarnating close with the line “My life was over, my life was new.” You can find the music video for “Like Going Down Sideways” — directed by Clarke’s girlfriend — here.
In one of the most reflective songs on the record, “Widow’s Window,” Clarke sings of the collective human perspective amidst a deep loss. How we view the world, our ensconced “windows” of the mind, and the power of retrospection are all discussed on this track. Clarke’s lyrics are slippery, “I’ve never been much of a salesman / I don’t know how to make you pay attention,” but to a point—even if that point is difficult to grasp upon first listen.
Such is the nature of poetry: the text means what you want it to mean; you bring your own context to what you read and hear. The slaloming line, “Break your back / carry your love into town / maybe that’s what / they meant when they said settle down / making maps of all the cracks in the ground” may have a very clear meaning to one but an entirely different meaning to another.
For a six-track EP, Alien Sunset is more than substantial. The songs are fresh, maybe a little bit hard to grasp initially, but fresh enough to encourage further listening. For all its DIY pleasantries, the tracklist offers a deep introspection and charming perspective undiscovered in music elsewhere. Inspirations abound: there are hints of The Growlers and Lou Reed on here, plus music from the 50s and 60s. Reed even inspired the six-minute closer, “Song for the Highest Tower,” which was written on the day of the singer’s death.
Cover-to-cover, Alien Sunset plays more like a full-length album than a 25-minute teaser. Fans should have plenty to look forward to when Clarke’s debut LP — out on Jagjaguwar — is released sometime next year.
Keep an ear out.