Cult hero dials back eccentricity
One of the most head-scratching phenomena of the music industry is the concept of the cult following. Usually achieving popularity is straightforward- an artist writes songs that sell due to their catchiness and accessibility to the mainstream market. That success leads to touring, deals with major labels and collaborations with big producers, among other things. But in certain situations, an artist doesn’t need that kind of financial backing to succeed. Even if they’ve written content the music media has deemed too weird for popular culture, that same content can draw a small but devoted army of fans. These fans then sustain entire careers with their consumption of the artist’s work, by buying albums, buying merch, and attending shows. They still get ignored by big labels, but these cult artists don’t need them to survive.
Swamp Dogg (no relation to Snoop) is one such example. Originally known as Jerry Williams, an LSD-induced epiphany in 1970 led to the creation of the freewheeling alter ego. Williams has been releasing diverse material on a wide variety of small labels ever since and has sustained a career through a heavy cult following that loves finding obscure gems. Now in the 50th year of his colorful career, Williams has released a new album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It.
Williams completely did a 180 on his previous record, 2018’s Love, Loss and Auto-Tune, ditching his trademark alt-soul sound for more modern funk production touches, and Sorry You Couldn’t Make It continues in the vein of the latter. There’s a softer side to his writing, as the most bombastic elements of his personality are slowed, whether because of age or creative choice.
The album’s opener, “Sleeping Without You Is a Dragg,” is a slow, romantic love song, featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame. “Good, Better, Best” ups the funk elements, where the Motown side of Williams’ songwriting returns. Other standouts include piano ballads “I Lay Awake” and “Billy,” which could easily be part of Elton John’s catalog, and the country bits on “A Good Song.”
The one thing about this record that could pose potential problems is its general lack of weirdness, as a lot of Williams’ fans originally latched on to him because of how much of an oddball he was. If they can view the music objectively though, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It is a solid release.