Anyone who’s familiar with Neil Hamburger—whether through his prank calls of old or his dozens of low-grade TV and film cameos—won’t be surprised that he opens his latest album with the verbal equivalent of walking into a rake.
Fumbling through the first few seconds of First of Dismay with his usual throat-clearing and touching-upon of dead celebrities, he suddenly spits bile at a “Heckler Mumbler,” seemingly losing control of his set before it’s even started. Before he can recover, an abrupt edit thrusts Dismay into the studio-recorded “Your Town USA.” The chicken-fried toe-tapper mines the same vein as Tim Heidecker’s Yellow River Boys, a (fellow Drag City) musical act whose jokes lie not in wordplay but unflinching, workmanlike commitment to the bit.
Hamburger, the creation of Gregg Turkington, is a failed lounge-act character cobbled together from novelty records and punk-rock sarcasm, a cheap, dirty joke with surprising career longevity and frequent flashes of scatological brilliance. It’s not uncommon to laugh oneself sore, cringe and groan within the same five-minute span on his albums and DVDs, making each new release worth a spin.
Dismay is a 50/50 split of his musical and verbal gifts, and depending on your tolerance for his shaky speak-singing, the musical numbers can drag a bit. But they also inject a strange air of classic Americana into the proceedings that complements the nightclub material, which was recorded in L.A., London and Savannah, Georgia.
“What is the only thing uglier than Limp Bizkit fans?” he asks during “He Refused.” “Limp Bizkit merch” he answers to scattered groans, before finishing with an indignant: “Well, fuck you.” The joke’s layers, from the stale reference to the toothless turn and the hostile follow—are a veritable equation for Hamburger’s humor. It’s intentionally lame, and everyone’s presumably in on this joke-within-a-joke. And if they’re not? Well, that’s part of the joke, too. Neil Hamburger’s biggest fan is Gregg Turkington, and his love of the character is so pure and intense that it’s nearly impossible not to be intoxicated by it. Nothing would make Turkington happier than angering and/or befuddling audiences, but his character persists largely because most of them get it, most of the time.
Figuring out what makes Hamburger so magnetic is part of the masochistic fun. Is it his carnie inflection? His abusive, unpredictable rage and profanity? His spot-on critiques of consumer culture that have made him a must-follow on Twitter? Ultimately it’s all in service of the mood he creates. “He Spoke” is a practically a prototype, one of those playground jokes that takes forever to set up and that ends with a crude, pointless punchline. It’s Hamburger at his most sublime, full of dubious (but arcane-sounding) Hollywood trivia and tame reverence that ends with the equivalent of a diarrhea burst in a quiet chapel.
It’s tempting to think that Dismay is the best distillation of Hamburger to date, but no doubt that will come with some future triple album depicting him in an unspeakably vulgar setting, shrugging his shoulders with palms upturned, his life—and yours—perfectly ruined.