There is no throat-clearing or fiddling with shirt cuffs at the start of Daniel Knox’s new album. Dispensing with the usual formalities of an intro, the first track, “King of the Ball”, opens with the Chicagoan announcing: “I want to be just where I’m supposed to be.” A spirited cabaret-music routine makes clear precisely where that is: centre stage, at a piano, with a microphone nearby.
Knox suits the leading role. It is, however, accidental. If the original career he had imagined for himself had worked out, he would currently be making films. But he dropped out from his Chicago film school and switched to music. He claims to have taught himself during late-night wanderings through the city during which he would sneak into downtown hotels and play pianos in deserted lobbies. Meanwhile, he supported himself by working as a projectionist in a repertory cinema.
He got a lucky break in music, thanks to a favourite film director. In 2007, David Lynch appeared at Knox’s cinema for a midnight screening. Knox opened for him by playing a short piece of music at the cinema’s organ. The YouTube clip of his performance won him an invitation to appear in a themed musical evening of plague songs at the Barbican in London. The gig led to several lasting musical associations, including Jarvis Cocker who appeared on his 2018 album Chasescene.
Won’t You Take Me With You is his fifth studio album. It continues a habit of giving records cinematic names. Chasescene was his breakthrough, a baroquely designed set of songs with a sinister undertow of violence and cruelty. His 2019 mini-album I Had a Wonderful Time was named after Groucho Marx’s apocryphal gag about a dull party (“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful time — but this wasn’t it”). His new outing takes its title from The Wizard of Oz, when the Scarecrow asks Dorothy: “Won’t you take me with you?”
“King of the Ball” launches the album down its own yellow brick road with a swagger rather than a skip. “If I asked for it all, would that be such a crime?” Knox sings with baritone bravado. “Vinegar Hill” finds him in a more sinuous but no less assertive guise. “I’m going to get in your head and kick my way out,” he sings with an insinuating, deep-toned vibrato. Saxophone and piano create a phantasmagoric version of hotel lobby music, the kind of score that might have played in Knox’s head during his nocturnal flits around Chicago in search of unused hotel pianos.
The notion of performance recurs. When characters turn up in songs, they do so as characters in songs. “This is a song about a girl from Carbondale,” Knox sings in “Girl from Carbondale”. “Make it come true, sing this song like it was about you,” he croons in “Fool in the Heart”, which floats along like a heavily sedated romantic number from the 1930s. A Lynch-style synthesiser adds to its mood of dissociation. (Knox released a covers album based on Lynch’s Twin Peaks last year.)
At times he comes across as being more interested in the act of performance than songcraft. Stories are less fleshed out than in Chasescene, while the music has a habit of settling into a holding pattern. But the best songs are richly conceived and dramatic, the work of a singer-songwriter who is ready for his close-up.
‘Won’t You Take Me With You’ is released by HP Johnson Presents