4 out of 5
Label: Self-released (digital)
Produced by: Joseph Thomas Haege
Dark. Confessional. Bitter. …And a smile. Joe Haege’s ongoing musical legacy is a fascinating one, tracked across how 31Knots evolved from a proggy indie band to more of an art project; through Joe’s involvement with other bands – supporting, or as a front-man – like Menomena and Tu Fawning; and onto the solo / sorta group work of White Wine / Vin Blanc. ‘Viking Disease’ appears on Joe’s bandcamp page alongside the second WW / VB release – definitely a solo record – but came out the same year as the third White Wine release, which is credited to a band. The mixture of identities, and the decision of when to go it alone or not, is all very fascinating when it comes to creative people, and Joe is definitely in that grouping.
His approach to music has also evolved of course, more blatant lyrical themes of relationships peeking into his work as things went on, mixed with what I’d consider an obsession with human frailty. ‘Viking Disease’ – feel free to read into that title – carries this on, but there’s something telling about Joe billing this under his own name, as, I believe, this is the first acoustic-focused album he’s released. The White Wine material is more intimate than 31Knots, but there’s an electronic bent to it, and often involves a lot of shouting. Here, the music is generally just unplugged guitar, and Joe is singing – layering his voice and using melodies that are familiar manner from these other projects – and fronting his words over all else. While this doesn’t, in any way, mean that ‘Viking’ isn’t without hummable tunes and low-key hooks, it does lead to what can happen with a lot of singer-songwriter releases, in that some tunes can start from a similar place before finding their way to recognizability. This is even somewhat purposeful here: the album is bookended by similar instrumentals, and provide a base for a lot of the other tracks.
But without the more abrasive vocals / music of White Wine, we’re still carried by Joe’s sense of song construction: when to add more; when to strip it down. So once any song has the chance to construct itself, even this minimalist approach can be mesmerizing, especially when Joe is wrapped up in his poetic lyrics. …Or direct lyrics: there’s a vein of confrontational sexuality that has pulsed on this era of Haege’s works, witnessed here on Dirty Bird; and sometimes he just isn’t in the mood to mask things, so we get Waiting in Line’s upfront statements on social disparities. Neither of these are bad approaches, but they can seem blunt – perhaps less “intelligent” – by comparison if you’re not ready for them.
While the WW/ VB releases offer the potential for more accessible “singles”, I actually have returned to Viking Disease more often overall. Joe is – to me – one of the smartest writers and most unique composers in modern music, but that can get lost in the bravado of some of his projects. Here, it’s boiled down so that those qualities cannot be ignored.