Has soul music generated a more outlandish persona than Swamp Dogg? The showman, songwriter, producer and industry vet Jerry Williams Jr. tried fairly conventional performing approaches early in his career, but ultimately settled on the frequently prankish and provocative — but also sometimes poignant — identity behind the 1970 album Total Destruction To Your Mind. The kaleidoscopic range of ideas that he's channeled into his output ever since has defied the perception — popular among analog-fetishizing, disco-loathing, vintage southern soul fans — of soul as a raw, natural, wholly unembellished form of expression. When you listen to his music, there's not much use in trying to separate emotionalism from knowing self-presentation and warped wit.
Swamp Dogg has found a new way to turn heads on his upcoming album Love, Loss And Auto-Tune, produced by Ryan Olson of the synth-pop outfit Poliça and due out September 7. This time Swamp manipulated the sound of his voice with the deliberately dehumanizing effect associated with hip-hop innovators T-Pain and Kanye West. Swamp's official bio cites West's cold, cocooned vocal texture on 808s & Heartbreak as a source of inspiration, and that places the elder artist in good company. A few years back, even Bon Iver's Justin Vernon fell under West's sonic influence and explored ways of liquefying his own singing in what The New Yorker's Hua Hsu described as "an attempt to erase...flesh-and-bone authenticity."
First, Swamp toyed with using Auto-Tune to amplify his new songs' lonely storylines in his own studio, then he sent the tracks to Olson (who deconstructed some of the arrangements and added icy, chaotically collaged layers of synthesizer) and Vernon (who put finishing touches on the vocals.)
On "I'll Pretend," one of the album's more desolate tracks, Swamp plays the part of a man who's delusional and unraveling. Over the ebb and flow of free-floating blues guitar licks, droning, subterranean bass and eruptive synthesizer, he sings, "I pretend your perfume fills the air, and as I sit in our favorite restaurant, I pretend that you're meeting me there," his gutsy braying processed into an oozy, remote sound. "I pretend, when I visit our old friends, that you're sitting down by my side, and when our old friends ask how am I doing, I pretend I'm not losing my mind."
Even at 75 years old, Williams, the man behind Swamp Dogg, has astounding energy for reinvention and experimentation. "I can compete with the competition until I'm a hundred and one," he boasted in an email. Only a fool would challenge him.
Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune comes out Sept. 7 via Joyful Noise Recordings.