For obvious reasons, posthumous releases are perhaps the most difficult to approach with an objective ear and eye. Whether or not the artist’s death was a natural one, it’s hard not to look for foreshadowing or references to mortality, or easter eggs like the ones David Bowie left in “Blackstar,” perhaps the most remarkable example of an artist essentially playing himself off.
And while “The Hex,” the final album from musical polymath Richard Swift — a solo artist and frequent accompanist of the Black Keys and Shins, who died in July at 41 of hepatitis and liver and kidney distress after years of alcohol abuse — doesn’t appear to be a giant statement, clearly he knew the end was near and didn’t shy away from addressing it lyrically: Its songs are “steeped in a milieu of devastating loss, grief, crippling depression, anxiety and alcoholism,” as a press release states. The subject matter makes the album’s upbeat musical vibe a characteristically sarcastic statement in itself, particularly on the jaunty-sounding but lyrically grim “Dirty Jim,” which features the lines “Every daughter in my home, every one I’ve left alone/ Sorry for the tears I gave to you.”
Recorded over several years and completed the month before his death, “The Hex” also features tracks about his late mother and sister, and what is being touted as the last song he wrote, “Sept20”: The album’s closing track, it takes its name from the date of his wedding anniversary and concludes with the lyrics “Trying not to drink from a poisoned well/ Slip away, asleep in my car/ All the angels sing ‘Que sera sera’/ Death do us part, sickness and health.”
Musically, the album continues the sound of his previous releases, which showed a profound influence from late ‘60s/early ‘70s pop wunderkinds like Harry Nilsson, Lee Hazlewood and Jimmy Webb, who created big, sweeping, ambitious, heavily arranged pop masterpieces bearing traces of musicals, vaudeville and the Great American Songbook, refracted through the warped sensibilities of their era (although Swift eschewed orchestras and largely recreated those sounds himself). “The Hex” features several songs in that vein, but also odd and haunting numbers like the angular “Selfishmath,” the guitar-driven “Babylon,” and the evocative instrumental “HZLWD” (which, in what seems to be a posthumous wink from Swift, follows the song “Nancy”: Hazlewood’s biggest hits were with Nancy Sinatra).
Despite its subject matter and context, “The Hex” is by no means a grim listen (well, unless you’ve read the paragraphs above). It’s very much a continuation and, inevitably, a conclusion of the fine solo work Richard Swift did in the past, and a fitting and self-aware cap on a career that ended far too early.