It was four in the morning, and I was sweating through my mud-spattered suit. The maintenance access tunnels under Johns Hopkins University aren't the best place to be late at night. The tunnels are off-limits, so we had to surreptitiously climb down a manhole to gain entry. The dark corridors are too short and narrow to stand in comfortably, let alone carry a body. It's unbearably hot, and somewhere in the labyrinth of wires and pipes some machine was giving off a constant, maddening roar. I'd been hauling Rjyan Kidwell around for hours now, pretty much since I'd gotten off work that day, and he was starting to get heavy.
I don't know how Kidwell got my phone number, but he had called me late the previous night and asked if I wanted to be in the video for "Kill Me," the single from Maryland Mansions, his fifth album under the name Cex. I'd interviewed Kidwell once and spoken to him a few times at his shows. We had a hometown (Baltimore) and a few friends in common, and I'd written a review for this site praising Being Ridden, his previous album. I didn't really know him before doing the video shoot, and I still don't really know him. Now I've heard Maryland Mansions, an emotionally raw and honest record, and I still don't really know him. He's a puzzle.
Kidwell began making music when he was in high school; his first album, Role Model, came out before he graduated. That album and the one that followed were instrumental IDM, warm and pastoral but also tense and edgy. His anarchic live shows were a completely different beast; he'd strip to his underwear, run out into the crowd, and spit ridiculous faux-booty jams. Then he dropped out of college and recorded Tall, Dark and Handcuffed, a flawed but spirited and impressive attempt at a straight hip-hop record. Afterwards, he broke up with his girlfriend, fled Baltimore for Oakland, and released Being Ridden, which combined the IDM and hip-hop of his previous albums with dark, tortured emo-folk. When he came through Baltimore on tour this past May, he'd traded in his gold fronts and sweatsuits for spiked platform boots and black makeup. He talked a lot about being goth. It was weird.
The video for "Kill Me" was shot on a cheap, hand-held camera in August, when Kidwell was back in Baltimore visiting for a few days. In the clip, Kidwell lies inert while another guy and I carry him to desks set up in different locations (a median strip, a playground) and force him to write on scraps of paper. I didn't ask him what the video was supposed to mean, and I still don't really know. Kidwell once wrote impassioned screeds on his Web site about the responsibility of the entertainer to the audience and the fallacy of the deified, unreachable artist, but his ideas have recently taken a perverse turn toward the impenetrable and the obsessive. I don't really know what he's on about anymore, and I'm less certain I ever did.
On Maryland Mansions, Kidwell has all but abandoned hip-hop and IDM. His drums once rippled and thumped; now they clank and scrape. He once used synth sounds for atmospheric effects, but now he uses them to bludgeon and screech. Maryland Mansions is musically Kidwell's harshest record yet, and it shows he's been listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails. The compositions are dense, evocative, and claustrophobic. The music is jagged and powerful, but there also seems to be an unhealthy level of self-pity at work here.
"Kill Me" may actually be the worst track on the record, though it's still pretty good. It's certainly the most self-consciously Reznorian song here. The synthesizers buzz like supercharged guitars while Kidwell shouts, "I'll apologize for the rest of my life forever/ Unless you promise to kill me first." Then the drums drop out and a plaintive acoustic guitar quietly snakes into the song while Kidwell mumbles, "I've got all my friends from Baltimore here with me." The song falls just short of anthemic largely because of Kidwell's voice; Kidwell is simply unable to pull off Trent Reznor's anguished howl, and the song ends up sounding vaguely petty as a result.
Other songs wrap Kidwell's insecurities in fractured, ominous layers of sound. On "New Maps," Kidwell's multitracked vocals proclaim "Baltimore does not exist/ For if it did I would be missed/ And as it stands I know I'm not" before acoustic guitars and synth beeps swirl backwards. On "Stillnaut Rjyan," metallic computer blurts lend tension to Kidwell's ranted metaphor about a broken-down space shuttle. "I am a boy who snuck in his father's closet, put on a suit, and got hired for his father's job," Kidwell almost-raps on "The Strong Suit."
Kidwell has never sounded this lost before, and that's not necessarily a problem. His lyrics could be read as the bad poetry of the troubled high-school outcast, but bad high-school poetry doesn't necessarily make for bad music. Plenty of artists (Trent Reznor, Ian Curtis, Marshall Mathers, Kurt Cobain) have taken their feelings of (white) (male) (possibly contemptible) isolation, fear, desperation, and loneliness and turned them into huge, transcendent, powerful works. Kidwell has made a gripping, beguiling record, but the record never seems larger than him. I never connect my own feelings of (white) (male) (possibly contemptible) isolation, fear, desperation, and loneliness with his. This is a problem. It's what separates a good album from a great one. Maryland Mansions wants to be a great record, but it's simply a good one.
I wish I knew why Kidwell was this sad and insecure. I don't, and I sort of feel like I should. After all, Kidwell has taken pains to tear down the wall between performer and audience. He posts an intensely personal diary on his Web site, and he currently refuses to perform onstage. But with Maryland Mansions he's still no closer to the rest of us, even those of us who are in his video.