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David Ivar, AKA Herman Dune, AKA Black Yaya, has been doing this sort of thing for years. Every so often the music press will give him cheap lodgings in some or other pigeonhole, but he’ll soon have messed it up, spilled beer on the carpets, skipped town and lost his deposit. He has been compared to everyone from Paul Simon to the Silver Jews, been called a less miserable Leonard Cohen, a more miserable Jonathan Richman. A stint with Kimya Dawson and a penchant for the endearingly left-field led him to being lumped in with the anti-folk and freak folk scenes, but when those ships sailed he remained on his own increasingly idiosyncratic island, sometimes employing a band, sometimes performing as a duo with percussionist Néman, too European for New Weird America, too American for the Parisian avant-pop scene.
It might be this compellingly individual and independent streak that has kept Ivar sounding so exciting to this day. Sweet Thursday is the thirteenth album under the Herman Dune name, and the band on this one is fleshed out to a three-piece, with Kyle McNeill on bass and Lewis Pullman providing percussion. The result is something perhaps a little more coordinated than fans will be used to, and which displays Ivar’s admirable songwriting talents to their fullest.
Sweet Thursday was inspired by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, and was recorded in California. Unsurprisingly it is among Ivar’s most American-sounding work: opener Oh Sweet Thursday has a catchy chorus that would make James Taylor or Cat Stevens envious, with ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals and a couple of guitar solos – one funky, one scuzzy – thrown in for good measure. Vincent Thomas Blues – whose title namechecks the San Pedro bridge close to Ivar’s new American home – is a Canned Heat meets Eddie Cochran rock and roll-blues-pop shuffle.
Wicked Love is a disarmingly simple folk song that recalls the quieter moments on Ezra Furman’s 2015 album Perpetual Motion People, and indeed both Ivar and Furman share more than just an affection for Jonathan Richman. Both are approach city life with an outsider’s unique point of view, which is particularly evident in A Giant’s Dream, with its traveller’s view of New York and fittingly Dylanesque instrumentation.
The surface bounce of these songs is offset by a deeper concern with the state of contemporary America, where, in the words of Down By The Jacaranda, the best way of dealing with life is to get drunk. Here Ivar rails against Spotify, describes it as ‘the opposite of rock and roll,’ and in doing so comes across as someone jaded by late capitalism, pissed off with the current political climate, but still hopeful that music can provide an escape and even bring about change.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that three of the nine songs on this album have the word ‘Blues’ in their title. Love Cat Blues is loping, down-on-its-luck, country while Early Morning Anderson Blues is another place-specific song that benefits from the perspective of an interloper. Joanna achieves the same sort of sad/funny balance as K-Hole-era Silver Jews and Dreamin’ Is Over, California wonderfully mixes the mundane with the surreal and the biblical, like a sincere Father John Misty.
Thirteen albums in, and you’d expect most artists to have settled on a winning formula. That’s not quite the case with David Ivar. Every Herman Dune album is recognisable as such, but each one approaches a distinct theme in a unique way. On Sweet Thursday Ivar tackles contemporary America from a personal standpoint, through the lens of literature and with an omnivorous knowledge of the history of music. Put like that it sounds dry, even academic, but Ivar’s wit and melodic sense ensures that it is nothing of the sort. In fact, Sweet Thursday is a work of genuine feeling from an old master of anti-folk who has extended and transcended the genre.