Since no one’s made a movie about Marc Anthony Thompson’s beautifully strange life— not yet, at least—here are some pivotal plot points for you screenwriter types…
Born in Panama, raised in California, and molded by New York’s music scene. Two solo albums before Cobain took over. A long break, as children are raised and life is truly lived. The creation of Chocolate Genius Inc., an alter ego that quickly transcended such a title. Sound-expanding collaborations with Meshell Ndegeocello, Van Dyke Parks, Doveman, Cibo Matto, 2/3 of Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Thompson’s only constant, Marc Ribot. And then, a seemingly sudden glimpse of high thread counts and private jets on Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Tour in 2006, followed by an “emotional roller coaster” in Senegal.
That one never quite left the back of Thompson’s mind, a space shared with thoughts of strange coincidences and slaughtered animals, love and loss, family and friends. Music to match every valley and peak, free of genre constraints or any particular scene despite what you may have heard about Thompson’s co-starring role in the ‘neo-soul movement’.
And now this: Swansongs, the final chapter in an extended trilogy (see also: 1998’s Black Music, 2001’s Godmusic and Black Yankee Rock released in 2004 ) that’s turned first-person tales into truth-seeking therapy sessions. More than just an exploration of the letter “I”, you know? Or as Thompson puts it, “Gracefully embracing decay is the constant theme. Letting go. The curse of religion. The passion is the poison. That old dilemma—worship and penance; sparkle and fade; bass and trouble.”
True to its title, Swansongs says goodbye to many people, places and things, including some rather important characters that left us several albums ago. Listen closely and you’ll see their spectral trails, discovering how ghosts have been here since the beginning, starting with the solemn sleeve of Black Music, Thompson’s first proper Chocolate Genius record.
“I’m sitting on the bed that my mother would die in right before we released the second offering, Godmusic,” explains Thompson. “She sings vocals on the first song of that record (“Perfidia”). They were caught randomly when I was a kid, as she walked into my bedroom while I was learning how to record.
He continues, weaving a tangled web indeed: “Decades later, I am in Los Angeles trying to find her missing widower. On a piano that hasn’t been tuned since the Watts Riots, I record ‘Like a Nurse’ and write four songs in that very same bedroom. A few days later, I find my father crashed into a pole on La Brea and Venice. It is the same intersection that I sang about in one of the first songs I’d ever written, ‘Pinks & Greens’.”
Stricken with sorrow and the unwavering hand of fate, Thompson finished “Sit & Spin” on the final day of his father’s life. The spare, piano-driven ballad is one of 11 chapters in the Swansongs cycle, a struggle with letting go that arrives two tracks after a voicemail collage that calls out from beyond the grave. As it turns out, the messages—all wrapped up in queasy ambient soundscapes—are simply the sound of Thompson’s father trying to get a hold of him over the years.
“I used the recordings of my parents on both releases because they are priceless artifacts to me,” explains Thompson, “and I wanted to lock them in the time capsule that each of these documents are. My children’s children will be able to download a little piece of their history. An indulgent, guilty conceit and perhaps nothing more – but I love the recording of my mom singing and the humor and spirit of my folks shines on both offerings.”
The same can be said for every word and note plastered across the pages of Swansongs, an album that ties up the loose ends of Thompson’s never-ending story. Meanwhile, his Chocolate Genius guise shifts ever-so-subtly, as Thompson embraces a simple idea—to “record something I didn’t have to apologize for…a complete listening experience.”
An abridged track-by-track translation: the fluttering falsetto foreground of “Like a Nurse”; the speaker-panning headphone symphonies of “How I Write My Songs”; the creepy, claustrophobic chamber pop of “Lump”; and ultimate Swansong “Ready Now,” which eventually fades off into the distance alongside one last lonesome chord. The only thing missing is the creaking sound of a closed door.
“Reluctantly, the book of songs is done,” says Thompson, who also dabbles in sound design and theatre/film scores (American Splendor, Twin Falls Idaho, the Obie-winning A Huey P. Newton Story). “I say reluctantly because I’ll soon have to stare at a blank page again, and greet whatever is next. That’s always the tricky part—by the time music is released, the process usually inspires an entirely new workflow, or has you headed to the road, sofa, beach, airport or bar. At least that’s been my syndrome. Though I write constantly, I release things sporadically at best, and sometimes as quietly as a cough. As Richard Ford says, ‘When a tree falls in the forest, who cares but the monkeys?’
1. She Smiles
2. Enough For You
3. Like A Nurse
4. Kiss Me
7. How I Write My Songs
8. Mr. Wonderful
9. Sit and Spin
10. When I Lay You Down
11. Ready Now