Best known as a co-writer for Sheryl Crowe's debut album, Kevin Gilbert was in the process of recording this scathing, unflinching indictment against the recording industry at the time of his all too early death. His friends were later able to sort through his many tapes and sketchy notes to complete this tortured prog-rock-pop magnum opus, a "rock opera" concerning Johnny Virgil, an auto-biographical character who learns firsthand the hypocrisy and decadence of the modern music industry.
The album opens with "Parade", a quiet, acoustic, na´ve song with the lyrics "My name is Johnny Virgil / I play this here guitar / I play it for myself." This leads to "The City of the Sun" with an off-kilter rock feel similar to Gabriel-era Genesis. An early favorite, "Suit Fugue" is a mostly a cappella fugue of messages left by PR men, agents, and other musical lowlifes on Johnny's answering machine. The result is equally humorous and dispiriting as Virgil first considers and eventually gives in to their demands to change his image and dump his band, justifying the decision in the sobering and haunting "Water Under the Bridge." After the industry attempts to androgynize and pasteurize him in the "Madman Across the Water" influenced "The Best Laid Plans", Johnny finds himself empty ("Staring Into Nothing" with Yes-ish Italian guitars and melotron) and quits the business. He turns to self-destruction with "Fun", a mocking, seamy underbelly of the hit he co-wrote with Crowe. Taking the familiar melody, Gilbert contorts it into a doped up, hideous distortion that takes the listener along on a tale of a Hollywood party full of drugs, transvestites, and a particularly viscous slam on Crowe herself. "A Long Day's Life" is a lonely, emotionally raw song of longing for innocence past with a melody that evokes the sorrow and tiredness of our hero. This beautiful, complex song takes many turns, guiding the listener back home with Virgil, back to a reprise of the opening song, this time sounding as down and out at our hero with lyrics "My name is Johnny Virgil / I used to be a star / A long, long time ago. / Sometimes I hear my records / in the wee hours of the night / on the oldies radio." Everything about this album is absolute perfection: the lyrics, the vocals, the musicanship, the production and the incredible songs that keep me coming back long after I've memorized every note. Of course, as brutally honest as this album is, don't expect it to be released by a major label. Instead, you'll have to go to www.kevingilbert.com to get your hands on this perfectly produced platter of powerpop genius, easily the best album I've heard in 2000.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2000.