Richard Swift plays the long game. At a spring 2006 performance, he left audiences floored with the pop perfection of his “The Atlantic Ocean.” That song wouldn’t see release for another three years, on an album of the same name. At times, his music seems to be the work of someone who has effectively appointed himself Harry Nilsson’s heir apparent, and Swift has the savvy and perception to pull it off. That fondness for classic pop has also tripped him up, though. His 2007 LP, Dressed Up for the Letdown, veered dangerously close to the line between influence and homage, and suffered during certain moments when Swift’s own voice threatened to be drowned out by those of his forefathers.
It’s important to consider that Swift has another side to him as well — one that’s much more eccentric in its obsessions. It’s here that the range of Swift’s talents shine, whether veering into instrumental soundscapes via his Instruments of Science and Technology side project, producing Damien Jurado’s best album in years in Saint Bartlett, or delving into the alternate histories of 2005’s The Novelist. The cover art of Walt Wolfman, in which a lycanthropic visage is applied over the face of a certain notable American poet and thinker, is a pretty clear indication of which side of Swift we’re getting here.
Alternately, Walt Wolfman is Swift heading into consciously weird territory, and it’s all the better for it. “MG 333” is built around what sounds like a sampled drum loop, and recalls nothing so much as a lone pop singer re-creating the Afghan Whigs’ “Miles Iz Dead” from half-vanished memories. There’s a keening vocal approach present there that crops up again on “Zombie Boogie,” an earnestly fractured number that proceeds at a rapid tempo. There’s also room enough here for the slow-burning instrumental “St. Michael,” which could be a distant cousin of The Atlantic Ocean’s brilliant “Lady Luck,” and the sleek and majestic “Whitman,” with its call-and-response structure and nimbly played piano.
Of the seven songs here, only “Drakula (Hey Man!)” stumbles somewhat — it’s essentially one idea that never entirely clicks. Admittedly, that “one idea” motif recurs a bunch on Walt Wolfman; Swift is testing new approaches on each of these songs, veering into unexpected territory and recombining familiar sounds in unfamiliar ways. It’s catchy and strange; more importantly, though, it’s a welcome reminder of Swift’s own strengths at both pop classicism and defiant iconoclasm.