Clutch’s Book of Bad Decisions Is Harsh Medicine for the Chapped Ass of 2018
For all its songs about honky tonk witchcraft and outlaw samsquanches, Clutch is an extremely empathic band. Their music is an emotional reflection of the America we live in, setting the cultural subconscious to a danceable rhythm. You can feel that on their last couple of albums—2013’s Earth Rocker was an honest explosion of rock n’ roll potential, a soundtrack to finally escaping the hipster- and recession-choked drama of the late Aughts. Meanwhile, 2015’s Psychic Warfare, released during the lead-up to arguably the most grotesque presidential election in US history, had a more confrontational vibe to it, as though warning listeners to buck up and get ready for some real shit.
Now, in the second year of the Racist Game Show Host, we have Book of Bad Decisions, an album whose cover is literally an American bald eagle with its back to you. This time around, Clutch have taken a turn for the acerbic, with a furious and slightly disjointed record that sounds like the simmering undercurrent of disbelief, anxiety, and rage that lies just below the surface of the world today.
The most notable shift between Bad Decisions and the record before it is heard in the production. The guitars on Psychic Warfare had a nice growl to them, but on this one Tim Sult has added a steely edge that gives even the most boogie-down party riffs a faint air of acid-casualty menace. Alternately, while the guitars are sharp and in your face, the vocals sound a little further away, echoing with enough reverb to give you a sense of the room around singer Neil Fallon. The two changes seem to take Clutch out of the recording studio and into an illegal show in an abandoned building.
Not that Bad Decisions is a humorless record—the band brings plenty of tailfeather-shaking boogie to the mix.The greatest example is obviously “In Walks Barbarella,” a horn-heavy strutter that begs to be featured in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Opener “Gimme The Keys” is a clever, galloping ass-kicker about what it takes to survive as a touring band. “Hot Bottom Feeder” is full of swagger, while songs like “Emily Dickinson” and “Paper & Strife” have that classic sense of historical moxie that the band channeled so well on songs like “Oh, Isabella” and “Son of Virginia.” But even on these tracks, the guitar hums like an angry wasp, warning unadventurous listeners to take a hike.
Meanwhile, several of the other big numbers on Bad Decisions feel emotionally unhinged and see Clutch switching up the playbook. While the second track on their previous two records has been a hot rod trailblazer, “Spirit of ‘76” is a warbling, melancholy ballad to a bygone era. The title track is a nasty mid-paced drinking song made hypnotic by the reliable strength of rhythm section Dan Maines and Jean-Paul Gaster. “A Good Fire” is like the background music for a pep rally held by the Druids on Halloween, while “Ghoul Wrangler” smacks of over-under shotguns and dreamcatchers with teeth in them. And of course, in honor of our national shellshock, there’s a raucous election track, “How to Shake Hands,” which posits the sublime daydream of President Neil Fallon (“First thing that I’m gonna do is disclose all those UFOs/Put Jimi Hendrix on a twenty-dollar bill and Bill Hicks on a five note!”).
The American dream is a goddamn mess right now, but Clutch are on top of it. They’ve been listening, and on Book of Bad Decisions they’re here to slap you on the shoulder and let you know you’re not alone. It’s not all sorrow and fury, sure, but even during its carefree moments, this album bristles at how insane everyday life feels at the present. The party’s still on, it just got moved to a basement with cement walls, and everyone who’s coming is kind of pissed off. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get fucked up and have a blast.