The first thing people are likely to call Donwill’s debut solo venture, Don Cusack In High Fidelity is a concept album about the 2000 movie of the same name. Sure, they share a title. And characters from the film, particularly the ex-girlfriend muses, are mentioned by name. And in order to segue in and out of songs Don even goes so far as to perform the film’s memorable monologues, largely birthed in Nick Hornby book that inspired the film. But even so, the quotations are at best only tangentially related to the songs – and at worst in complete opposition to them. That isn’t to say that the movie and the album don’t share the theme of relationships, both gone right and gone wrong. However, 90% of popular music deals with this subject. So can the Tanya Morgan emcee make a cult favorite akin to the film, or is the concept an anchor to his own creativity and personal story on music versus misery?
“Laura’s Song,” named for the female lead of the film, is one of the few instances where Donwill sticks close to the actual plot of the film. Over airy production and a skillfully-employed looped Soul sample the emcee drops lines like “I saw her out with him / And feelings couldn’t fight ’em off / My heart dropped, man / I couldn’t speak couldn’t talk /I’m hurtin’ yall / Our love, her call.” Those lines may be simple but they are also honest and they do a great job of portraying the powerless feeling of someone going through a breakup that was not a mutual decision. Another highlight is “Love Junkie,” a “Hip-House” track, with synth stabs doing a nice job of evoking a club atmosphere. Donwill undercuts the good-time vibe with lines like “The Sex was good / But I’d take love over that if I could / And I didn’t really want to cut it but it / Was the closest thing to the feeling that I could find,” the reality that club life and casual sex can seem pretty hollow when there is someone out there you are truly in love with comes into sharp focus. “Ian’s Song” is one of the few songs on “High Fidelity” that actually takes its inspiration and goes a few steps further; creating a new “scene” that feels fresh and unique. The song is a back and forth between the jilted ex and the “new guy” and features insistent beat and aggressive attitude that perfectly complement the lyrics. There is even a nice turnaround at the end where the song’s protagonist realizes his ire is misdirected: “‘Cause for real the decision wasn’t his / Something’s telling me that Laura went in / And I’ll be damned if I’m mad at him.” But of course the song’s momentum is deeply challenged by a big slab of dialogue right in the middle of the song.
Along those lines, many of the weaker tracks seem to suffer mainly because of the aforementioned attempts to make this album a concept record. “Top 5 Breakups” uses the names of the exes from the film for no discernible reason as the girls named in the song do not match up with their cinematic counterparts. Also, lines like, “Charlie was a head case / I thought that she was good for me / Magnetic, beautiful / Disaster is the recipe,” have some of the immature, casual misogyny that was always the most disconcerting part of the film. “Championship Vinyl” has a line by Von Pea, “Love isn’t a dead format.” Whether you find that statement profound, or something better suited for an Urban Outfitters t-shirt campaign, “Championship Vinyl” manages to amplify the obnoxiousness-elitism of the store clerks from the film, no easy feat. “Good” is a song and with a dialogue lead that is so at odds with it that one has to wonder why the emcee would even bother trying to connect the two. The quoted passage from the film is about how Rob and Laura’s relationship appeared unspectacular but was in fact comfortable in the most wonderful way. However the song is about couples who though apparently perfectly matched are actually poisonous to each other. Most unfortunate is the case of “December 27th,” a good song about losing a loved one that does an admiral job of getting across the pain that comes from a death in the family, with passionately-delivered and intricate lyrics like “Trying to live forever and gain adult wisdom, lose intuition / Get a grave engraved with grains of religion.” It’s really too bad then that leading into “December 27th” there is an awful interaction between Donwill and the character of Laura, using the actual performance of Iben Hjejle from the film, informing the emcee/character that her father has died. In the movie, it is a raw, highly-moving plea for sympathy from someone she knows truly loves and accepts her. On the record it’s cheapened, especially when the track that follows has nothing to do with that character from the movie.
Contrary to many albums, Don Cusack in High Fidelity thrives in its closing movement. The final four tracks, which mercifully ditch the dramatic readings, come off like a celebration of love in all its forms. “Pussy Rules” is the most light-hearted and fun track on the album with a chorus that is catchy and ironic. The song details the thrill of the chase and in the friendly shit-talking atmosphere even Bad Lucc’s line “If there ain’t no smashin’, alone is how your bone feel” can force a smile. “Maybe You & I” has a breathless pace which perfectly captures the tracks theme: the rush of infatuation. “Girl Girl” details the horribly awkward situations we can get ourselves in when we go after someone of the opposite sex. And finally there is “Hey Baby,” a great album closer, which is a solo turn by Raygen Fykes and is prototypical heavily orchestrated 1970s Soul. After these four invigorating final songs you realize why it’s worth it to go through all the pain that’s been detailed in the previous 12 tracks: love is often joyous, complicated, fun, and funny as hell. It’s too bad that Donwill waited until the end of the record to show the listener this when he must have known it all along.
When stripped of the tenuous concept and the ill-advised line readings, High Fidelity can be judged for what it really is: the solo debut album of a very talented guy. Here is an emcee that understands the dynamic between men and women, at least to the extent someone as young as he can. When you have the kind of lyrical talent and vocal dexterity that Donwill possesses there is no need to present your art through the guise of something already familiar, as tempting as it may seem.