Boston listeners who are driven towards the forward-thinking, self-aware, occasionally tongue-in-cheek guidance of The Mountain Goats will be pleased to know Boston’s got its own version of that: The Michael Character. That moniker masks the genius that is James Ikeda. While he’s certainly more approachable than John Darnielle, a sizable chunk of his musical output mirrors that of the indie rock icon. He releases records rapidly, dropping one a year as a way to annotate his life, yearbook-style. He’s verbose but he’s also a sharp editor. But what makes Ikeda’s work as The Michael Character so phenomenal is the live performances. He transforms into a Jeff Rosenstock figure: he’s all smiles, he yells as loud as he can, and he uplifts strangers and friends alike while encouraging them to push themselves to do better.
Last year, The Michael Character gave us Wheelie?, a collection of songs that grapple with the inevitability of aging and pragmatic action. Now, he’s back with a follow-up that’s even more essential, and we’re beyond stoked to premiere it in full. Fame Swoll, his ninth release, is arguably The Michael Character’s most roving reflection of material. He reflects on everything from Boston University bros harassing people in Allston to the Cuban Revolution’s impact on black radical solidarities. Lyrically, it’s a treat, but it’s equally rewarding instrumentally; it’s the first release in four years to feature a full band — and the record shines because of it.
“The title is like—you go to the gym and get Swoll, then you read a lot of books and get Brain Swoll, then you get really famous; Fame Swoll,” says Ikeda. “I think one of the hardest parts about aging, psychologically, is that it becomes increasingly difficult to feel successful, and thus happy, unless you scrutinize the metrics with which you measure your success and happiness. I’m at a point now where my hunger for recognition and validation is pushing me into a precarious spot where the level of ‘success’ that I think I need in order to feel satisfied sits somewhere beyond what I can reasonably accomplish. I’m still not sure how to deal with that without feeling like I’m settling or letting myself down or selling myself short. I think the real answer is admitting that failing to let your ego go consigns you to a life of internal tension and dissatisfaction and insatiable hungers, but I also know I’m not ready to live the consequences of that answer.”
A seven-song album like this doesn’t have to be gruff in its reminders. Instead, Fame Swoll sounds like a blend of the verbose, rattled-off detailing of The Front Bottoms; the cathartic ska undertones of Jeff Rosenstock; and the warm-toned guitar strums of early Frank Turner. There are bursts of brightly-colored backing percussion (“Survive”). There are samples of pop culture audio (“Deterrence Theory of Collective Self-Defense”). There are spoken word songs dripping with palpable emotion (“My Parents Paid My Rent Until I Started My Career; Marvel at My -Adulthood-“). Fame Swoll manages to cover it all without feeling overstuffed, nor does it flaunt its variety with the vibe of someone seeking praise. It’s social and political commentary filtered through creativity that’s then sanded down into top form.
Songs like “Literally My Master’s Thesis” are witty and quick — fitting given he spends his days organizing house shows, molding young minds in the classroom, and reminding people to question the various authorities around them. But it’s tracks like opener “Safe World,” which he wrote in August of last year, that tackles what it’s like to be helpful in a world that you can only ever view through your own limited lens. Progress requires hearing, recognizing, and acting upon urgencies of others. The Michael Character’s newest album not only addresses that, but calls for action in a way that actually motivates you to follow through.
While all songs were written by James Ikeda, a slew of guests helped turn Fame Swoll into the finished product you can hear today. Ikeda holds down the acoustic guitar, lead vocals, and xylophone, but Laura “Larz” Brogan (of Palehound) handles drums and bass, John Muccino (formerly of River City Extension) does lead guitar and piano, Steve Miller does “baby keyboard” in “Safe World,” Cameron LeViere contributes backup vocals in the title-track, and Catherine Conley, Fenn Macon, and Karbia Yuan tackle the group vocals you hear throughout. The chunk of the album was recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered by Ben Greer. Once again, the artwork was created by Boston’s inimitable Louis Roe, aka Squishy Sandwich.
Fame Swoll can be streamed in full below. To purchase a copy, head over to Bandcamp. The Michael Character will also have cassette copies available, courtesy of Chelsi Webster, if you prefer to bop along to a physical copy.
THE MICHAEL CHARACTER (ALBUM RELEASE SHOW), ZANOIS, SIDNEY GISH, OZLO, WEEKEND GREG, SQUITCH. TUE 10.10. O’BRIEN’S PUB, 3 HARVARD AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$8. OBRIENSPUBBOSTON.COM