Review Summary: A dense, foreboding record, "The Failure" is more than the sum of its' parts.
In my book, the mark of a truly great CD is whether or not it creates its own world that you can return to each time you play it. Some discs manage it, most don’t. “The Failure”, by B. Dolan, manages it with aplomb, dropping you into a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape and then leaving you to fend for yourself. Trust me, it’s a journey you’ll want to take over and over again.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Though hip hop is the genre that you’ll almost always find this album labeled as, there’s very little of that on this disc. While Dolan’s Strange Famous boss Sage Francis does show up to lend his formidable skills to the lone battle rap, “Heart Failure”, and label mate Sole shows up on “Young Americans”, the majority of this album can be classified one of two ways: Spoken word and soundscapes. Provided that you’re listening to the album all the way through, they both work.
The spoken word pieces succeed thanks to Dolan’s experience as a slam poet and performance artist; you can feel the palpable energy that goes into each syllable on offer here. Dolan has a Kafka-esque gift of bringing you along one path of thought and then, with one line, one word, one little change in inflection, he instantly alters the feel of the entire piece. Take “Kate”, for instance, which begins as a reflection on a girl and her daughter and, with one shout smack dab in the middle, turns the track into a menacing diatribe fueled by equal parts regret and vitriol.
The soundscapes are a bit spottier. While they propel the concept of the album along, they don’t necessarily work as standalone pieces. To listen to them all is to hear a story, to listen to one is to hear a snippet of conversation. This is the weak point of “The Failure,” that it must be listened to all the way through in order to maintain its power. Otherwise, there are only about six songs that work on their own. That’s not to say that it’s difficult to take this album as one undivided piece of work. At just over 49 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and through Dolan’s storytelling, you can trace a clear progression through the story. The concept, that of the last man on earth listening to old poetry tapes with a robotic companion and slowly losing his mind, lends itself well to the heavy, lonely atmosphere that pervades much of this album. This is not a record to play at a party; this was meant for lonely drives late at night.
Even if you don’t have the time or energy to devote to a gloomy meditation on the importance of human interaction, the strongest songs on here are still enjoyable on their own. Apart from the aforementioned “Kate” and “Heart Failure,” there’s the live track “Bombzo For Baghdad”, a not-too-subtle reference to OutKast’s homophonous song, finds Dolan literally clowning his way through an attack on do-nothing war activists. While it works well on an album, it principally serves to make you want to catch Dolan live in order to miss none of his onstage antics. Sure, we can imagine a rotund white slam poet dressed as a clown or Evel Knievel, but how unsettling must it be for the poor anonymous audience member instructed to pull his finger midway through the song? There’s also the masterful “Joan of Arcadia,” a laid-back piece driven by a burbling piano and fairly simple snare beat that weaves together religious and political satire in the best traditions of slam poetry and will leave you breathless by the last couplet. With a line like “I killed a queer for Christ and didn’t even get a thank-you letter” buried in the middle of the song, you better believe that the beginning and ending are even better.
In the end, “The Failure” stands as a fascinating objet d'art, all but unknown and criminally so. Highly recommended for those that enjoy slam poetry and don’t mind investing the time into listening to an entire album. For anyone else, this may not be their cup of tea, but there are a few standout stand-alone tracks that will at least ensure that they won’t see this as time wasted. With Dolan releasing some more standard hip-hop fare on his mix tape “House of Bees Vol. 1” (Available for free on the Strange Famous Records website), this should at the very least raise some interest in his next album.