[Bella Union; 2020]

One of the first head-turning moments on Mancunian Brian Christinzio’s new record as BC Camplight comes roughly four minutes in, as he pictures himself doing a stand-up comedy routine on stage, while an imagined audience laughs along. “For the whole first half of this record, I thought I had a really bad disease; turns out, uh, I’m just mentally ill.” The laughter abruptly stops.

As the intro to “Ghosthunting”, this routine strikes a chord, leading into a plaintive keyboard line and Christinzio’s distinctive falsetto, the ‘ghost’ in its title referring to the time when he hallucinated the image of his dead father. When faced with that sort of bleak humour, one seldom knows how to react. BC Camplight has made a career out of it, his unflinching personal narratives threaded through songs with an eccentric musical bent.

He could have been talking about any of the four BC Camplight records that preceded this; his musical career, which started in Philadelphia in 2002, has become increasingly blighted by extenuating circumstances and personal tragedy. His first two albums led to him being dropped by his label, developing mental health issues and alcohol dependency as he almost quit music outright. Relocating to Manchester, the promotion for 2015 comeback How to Die in the North was stalled by legal trouble which inspired 2018’s Deportation Blues. Then just before the release of that record, his father Angelo unexpectedly died.

Coming to terms with that loss is the foundation of Shortly After Takeoff, the conclusion of what’s sometimes referred to as his ‘Manchester Trilogy’. Billed as “an examination of madness and loss,” it’s uncomfortably honest listening, with gut-punches hiding in the details. This is exemplified by “Arm Around Your Sadness”, which explores Christinzio attempting to live with his depression; shut inside watching daytime TV and signing for packages he can’t remember ordering, all set to one of the album’s most heartwrenching melodies.

To quote that “Ghosthunting” intro again, Christinzio “doesn’t care about being accessible anymore,” and his fifth album is all over the map musically. Opener “I Only Drink When I’m Drunk” moves from spaghetti-western guitar to a disarming vocoder chorus, that’s then interrupted by guitar blasts before falling back into its restrained verse. There’s no correlation whatsoever between the verses and chorus of “Back to Work”, but it’s a fine example of Christinzio deliberately throwing the listener for a loop during a song in which he recounts “watching Die Hard 2 for the 38th time” and off-handedly telling his mother he wants to kill himself, to which she replies, “Brian, grow up / You’re 40 years old; ain’t it time to stop that shit?”

Christinzio has a knack for crafting some killer lines, and the way comedy and tragedy intermingle on this record make them stand out all the more. Made during what he says was “a spiral worse than any time since my twenties,” the lightness of touch on display throughout gives equal weight to humour and emotional heft. He goes from “waking up in a Nando’s car park dressed in a banana suit” while haunted by death anxiety on “Cemetery Lifestyle”, to the lush symphonic pop of “I Want to Be in the Mafia”, which finds him barely holding himself together in Philadelphia’s Belmont Psychiatric. He sums up the absurdity of his situation thus: “My mind is over that way / My soul is over there somewhere / I’m just in between, saying ‘what do you want from me?’”

Closing with “Angelo” – named in tribute to his father and an affecting postscript to the musical and emotional chaos – Shortly After Takeoff is a powerful collection made by someone who’s had to endure more than his fair share of turbulence. “Shortly after takeoff, you’ll find me crashing out / Don’t pick up the pieces” he quips on the title track, and it’s clear Christinzio isn’t one to lean into the tortured artist narrative. He’s instead opted to salvage what he could from 2018’s wreckage and rebuilt himself in the process, documenting this on a record that’s as fragmented as it is fascinating. His outlook on life won’t be for everyone, but mass appeal hasn’t bothered him for a while; when faced with calamity, sometimes all you can do is laugh.