This Chicago-based singer-songwriter is a bit of an enigma to me, as details about his discography are quite slim. As far as I can tell, however, 3am is his second solo album, which is noteworthy given that it has been 8 long years since Swan’s similarly excellent debut (I'll Be Around) surfaced. What he was up to during that hiatus is mostly unknown to me (aside from "drawing the night in around his private, unnerving vigil," of course), but one thing I do know is that he formed a duo with James Schimpl called Dead Bandit that released their debut on Quindi last year (the same label behind this album). In any case, 3am is one hell of an aptly titled album, as it very much has the feel of a hushed, late-night confessional via four-track. The overall aesthetic calls to mind the "desolate outsider folk" blurring of an insomniac Elliott Smith or Zelienople with the homespun intimacy of early Iron and Wine, yet the pervasive mood of late night sadness is beautifully balanced with cool production tricks and shades of more lively and eclectic influences like Suicide and Charlie Megira.
The album’s description insightfully notes that Swan’s aesthetic plays “on the natural distortion and delirium which occurs at the farthest end of the night,” which is an excellent way to explain how this album differs dramatically from ostensibly similar artists exploring the “after late night television pain” vein such as Russian Tsarlag or Matt Christensen. Swan has some darkness to exorcise, to be sure (check out “Hospice”), but 3am feels more like a batch of poignant and hook-filled gems that were handed off to the night itself for a “late night delirium” production overhaul. Obviously, that is not what actually happened, which makes Swan a bit of a visionary production-wise: he uses the same roughly instrumentation as everyone else, but those instruments are inevitably veiled in hiss, buried deep in the mix, or distorted by their lo-fi recording process (Swan apparently “drags the music through layer upon layer of tape fuzz” as part of his process). Significantly, he goes the opposite route with his vocals, as they sound close mic’d in a way where it feels like Swan is whispering directly into my ear. Rather than hiding himself in a fog of reverb and hiss, he expertly wields murk to weave a haunted and hallucinatory backdrop for his stark, emotionally direct songs. The album’s lead single “Puppeteers Tears” is an especially fine illustration of Swan’s inspired strain of ghostly Americana, as it feels like something from The Creek Drank the Cradle eerily enhanced with a haunting whistle loop, a buried organ motif, and a primitive drum machine groove.
As far as singles go, “Puppeteers Tears” was a strong choice, but the same could have been said for at least half of the remaining songs as well. The bleak subject matter of “Hospice” presumably excluded it from contention for the honor, but it is a similarly stellar piece, as Swan’s hushed and rhythmic half-sung/half-spoken vocals are backed by a smoldering groove featuring jangling jingle bells and a wobbly synth hook. Elsewhere, the darkly sensual “Swing” sounds like the best song Suicide never wrote, while the title piece sounds like a blearily hallucinatory minimal wave classic. “It Could Always Be Worse” is another skeletal would-be pop masterpiece, as it feels like an early synth pop hit that has been completely drained of blood. The remainder of the album is quite strong as well, if a little less substantial (there are several instrumentals and brief interludes). There is also an unexpectedly tender surprise in the form of “She’s My Sweet Summer Storm,” which somehow manages to feel like a sincere love song without dispelling the uneasy “fever dream” spell of the album. In fact, just about everything Swan attempted turns out wonderfully on 3am, as he manages to effortlessly evoke the ghosts of roughly five different artists I love without ever creeping into derivative “pastiche” territory. Hopefully it will not take another eight years for Swan’s next solo album, but quietly releasing an album or two like 3am would be enough to make him a cult hero in a sane and just world. If this album had been released in 1983 (or even 1993), I suspect collectors would be happily dropping hundreds of dollars for an original copy. Sadly, Swan probably missed his window for achieving indie immortality, but 3am is a hell of a lot better than many highly sought-after bedroom masterpieces that came before it.