A look back at Daniel Romano’s nine 2020 albums in preparation for the 10th, How Ill Thy World is Ordered, released this Friday.
It’s hard to describe what it felt like to get a Bandcamp email notifying you that Daniel Romano surprise-released a new album. And to get one the next week. And the week after that. There were some breaks, but by September, Daniel Romano has released nine albums (and a book of poetry). How?
One can rule out label shenanigans due to Daniel Romano being a co-founder of You’ve Changed Records. The albums could’ve been finished earlier, but he was always prolific, one album a year minimum. (He’s even surprise-dropped albums on Bandcamp before, with two simultaneous albums released between 2017 and 2018’s normal studio albums.) There would be no blame for releasing home demos like many artists have during the COVID-19 pandemic, but these sound exactly like his normal studio albums. They’re also filled with musical collaborations, including a new backing band (“Daniel Romano’s Outfit”) and members of the bands Tool and Fucked Up. When did he have time? His social media is scant and toying, dropping album announcements on Instagram with the caption “New Record Wednesday.”
Regardless of its potentially supernatural origin, the music is here. While the quantity and production quality is confounding enough, even more impressively, every release has kept to a unique style—country album, prog rock album, raw punk album, etc. In this way, Daniel Romano’s 2020 albums have served as a microcosm for his entire discography.
First recording indie folk with Attack in Black and Daniel, Fred & Julie in the 2000s, he used his solo moniker to pivot to classic country (why not?). In five years and five albums, he moved beyond country to a swirling barrage of different styles, changing his singing style and appearance as he pulled from different genres from the 60s to the 80s. He was always surprisingly prolific and surprisingly at ease in whichever style he dipped into, but this previous surprise has been made quaint by this single year of music.
For anyone unfamiliar with Romano (or fans who looked away for one month), these nine albums can be intimidating (especially when finding out they’re inexplicably not mere home demos). Here follows a chronological guide to the artist’s busy, busy year.
1. Daniel Romano – “Visions of the Higher Dream”
[March 15, 40min]
Even after the year’s slew of music, the answer to the question “which album is the most Daniel Romano?” is still this one. Ever since his albums Mosey and Modern Pressure, Romano has plumbed a wide toybox of musical tropes from the 60s to the 80s, including Spector-esque walls of sound, folk, psychedelic rock, country rock, arena rock, and more, evoking an out-of-time feeling where you still can’t place the exact source it’s throwing back to. And that’s exactly what “Visions of a Higher Dream” continues. This album can feel like a tour through Romano’s favorite arrangement styles—here’s a horn section, sax solo, slide guitar, backwards guitar solo, a string section.
This production style raises the question—why would an album this meticulously produced be quietly released on Bandcamp for $3 CAD while others like “Okay Wow” and September’s How Ill Thy World Is Ordered get the full press treatment? I’m not sure, but Romano is a co-founder of You’ve Changed Records, so one can assume it’s with his blessing.
If there’s any downfall to this album’s style, this songwriting and stylistic thrust requires more listens to pick individual songs out compared to the varied eddies of older albums like Mosey (perhaps with exceptions for standouts “Lilac About Thy Crown” and the climactic “Boy in a Crow-Skin Cape”). This is the danger of being the man who has identified the songwriting serotonin button and mashes it for forty minutes.
2. Daniel Romano’s Outfit – “Okay Wow”
[March 28, 46min]
13 days after previous album
It used to not be rare for bands to release live albums that could hold artistic weight alongside their studio recordings, but it’s hard to think of many modern examples. Outside of obvious genres (jazz, jam bands, prog bands on their fifth decade, etc.), the live album is more of a bonus nowadays, a bone thrown to fans on Bandcamp or as a Record Store Day exclusive. “Okay Wow” (quotations included in the title), in addition to showcasing the quality of the Daniel Romano songbook, is also an argument for artistic validity of the live album.
Romano has famously been a DIY multi-instrumentalist, the kind of artist who’ll retreat to an isolated Swedish cabin to record a full studio album, and it’s surprising to hear just how tight of a band he’s assembled and how well he plays with them. The band is blessed with a telepathic energy that breathlessly blows through these 15 songs. Romano’s past decade has been the story of a musical chameleon, but the band’s energy here creates a unifying glue through these shifting styles, whether it’s showcasing songs from the cryptic psych folk of Finally Free (“Empty Husk”), the Lee Hazlewood-esque cowboy psychedelia of Mosey (“Toulouse”), the classic country of Sleep Beneath the Willow (“Hard on You”), and the plaintive folk of Human Touch (“Turtle Doves”). It’s both a celebratory victory lap for a preternaturally gifted songwriter’s decade of work, and a rare example of a live album that works as an excellent introduction to the artist.
3. Daniel Romano — Super Pollen
[April 24, 18min]
27 days after previous album
In 2016, while Romano was exploring new 70s pop and psychedelic rock idioms in his solo releases, he started a side project “Ancient Shapes” for quick-and-dirty upbeat classic punk, with albums rarely clocking past 20 minutes. However, his pop instincts inevitably bled in, creating something closer to power pop by 2019’s A Flower That Wouldn’t Bloom.
Super Pollen feels like a continuation of this direction, in spite of the Daniel Romano moniker. Although members from Fucked Up, Jade Hairpins, and Daniel Romano’s Outfit contributed, this is not an over-stuffed 18 minutes. It’s poppy and arena-sized and shows off instrumentally in ways that punk’s not supposed to, but the Ancient Shapes energy flows through songs like “I’m Afraid of Elevators” and “Still Hate Cops”—even if the song in between, “Electricity’s Allergic to You” could dominate ’80s FM radio stations with few changes. An eighteen-minute bolt of energy.
4. Daniel Romano’s Outfit – Content to Point the Way
[April 29, 31min]
5 days after previous album
There’s a subset of Daniel Romano fans who were exclusively on board for his 2010–2015 classic country period. Though country influence never completely disappeared from his music, it had been long enough that it got exciting just to hear a slide guitar on “Visions of the Higher Dream”. With the wisdom of 45 days of hindsight, it was clear this was hinting at more to come.
In old interviews, Romano only spoke earnestly about his love for classic country, but with his vibrant cowboy outfit (complete with big ol’ mustache and self-made leather guitar straps), a lyrical penchant for high melodrama and almost-novelty-songs, and an album name like Come Cry with Me, one could suspect some ironic detachment. Regardless if that was the case, Romano returns to country after a five-year break more earnest and comfortable than ever (helped by his decision to not put on as strong of a deepened twang). The Outfit plays country as well as every other genre they’ve taken on, with some particularly superb slide guitar matching the sighing lyrical wistfulness you’d want from a good classic country album.
There one odd detour in the album’s short 31 minutes—this album follows up Super Pollen’s “I Still Hate Cops” with a goofy one-minute instrumental “A Pig Is a Pig Jig” that closes with oinking and police sirens. Released in April 2020, you can’t say the man’s not timely.
5. Daniel Romano’s Outfit feat. Danny Carey — Forever Love’s Fool
[May 6, 23min]
7 days after previous album
The ghost of prog rock has floated through Romano’s psych folk (like 2018’s Finally Free), but he never fully dived in. Here, with the help of Tool’s Danny Carey (surprise!)—he dives in.
Forever Love’s Fool is a single track, a big proper 22 minute vinyl-side-filling song suite epic in the vein of “Supper’s Ready” and “Close to the Edge”. I’m not damning this release by mentioning such classics, this is really that good, and one of the best prog rock releases in years. And like Yes, Romano knows how to stitch together winding passages and disparate musical ideas with a constant thrust pushing tension up till the cathartic and blissful finale. On the Instagram release announcement, Romano writes “Of all the records and songs I’ve made, of this one I am most proud,” and it’s not hard to get why.
6. Daniel Romano’s Outfit — Daniel Romano’s Outfit Do (What Could Have Been) “Infidels” by Bob Dylan & The Plugz
[May 13, 40min]
7 days after previous album
This is exactly what it says: a full cover album of Bob Dylan’s Infidels (1983). While Infidels is regarded as a return-to-form for Bob Dylan after an infamous run of duds, that reputation comes from Infidels’ songwriting and not its contentiously slick Mark Knopfler production. Daniel Romano doesn’t reinvent or tinker with Infidels any more than ask, ‘what if a normal rock lineup did a tight runthrough of Infidels?’ 70s Bob Dylan has been an obvious influence on Romano’s solo output, and he and his band are well-fit to the task. This isn’t an essential or surprising release, but the band’s earnest approach and the quality of Dylan’s songwriting make for a worthwhile listen for fans of both artists.
7. Daniel Romano – Spider Bite
[May 20, 18min]
7 days after previous album
If you’ve followed Romano’s Ancient Shapes side project and were disappointed by its pop drift, Romano and Constantine’s Steven Lambke (the two founders of You’ve Changed Records) have your album: this is raw, sweltering classic punk. It fully commits, probably relegating this to be the most niche albums of Romano’s this year. Another point of interest is the continued open leftist politics in Romano’s releases, like on “Hospitals and Graveyards” and “UBI”, delivered with Lambke’s appropriately mad-at-the-world snarl.
8. Daniel Romano – Dandelion
[May 27, 37min]
7 days after previous album
On the eighth release of the year I’ll give Romano some leeway on album artwork, but this one really deserved better than a slightly-horizontally-squashed photo of an eye. Like “Visions of the Higher Dream”, this album strews close to Romano’s main songwriting style he’s worked in since 2017’s Modern Pressure.
However, if Visions was colored by country rock influence, Dandelion takes influence from late-’60s psychedelic pop with its flutes, harpsichord, Beatles-like undercurrent to the melodies and vocal harmonies, even a Mellotron motif that runs through track transitions. From the windy-day vibes of “Maybe Today Will Be Curious” to the infectious “Ain’t That Enough for You”, Dandelion is probably his most outwardly pretty album and one of his best songwriting collections in his whole discography, let alone 2020.
Romano claims on Instagram that this album was made “by me Alone in a room for a week w a bunch of stuff” and I simply refuse to believe him. This may have been his fifth “New Record Wednesday” in a row, but there’s no way. There’s no way!
9. Alias Ensemble – A Splendour of Heart
[July 15, 40min]
49 days after previous album
If each 2020 Romano album has an intentional theme, it’s easy to imagine this one as “hey, we haven’t done a Steeleye Span thing yet, have we?” Although Daniel Romano and Outfit member David Nardi make up two-thirds of Alias Ensemble, the inclusion of singer Kelly Sloan justifies the decision to release this as a new band.
Kelly Sloan is a wonderful singer, striking a modern folk/Americana style in her lower register (“A Picture of Perfume”) or channeling the pure-toned singers of the 70s Canterbury folk scene as each song needs (like in the gorgeous “Storm Cellar Door” or the stealth “Willie-o-Winsbury” cover “I’ve Nothing Left to Know”). The band scores her with a lush acoustic Celtic-folk-influenced accompaniment (is that an Irish bouzouki I hear? Hurdy-gurdy?).
There’s a magical moment halfway through the album when the ensemble covers Romano’s “Lilac About Thy Crown” from his first 2020 album “Visions of a Higher Dream”. The song was only four months old at this point, but it already sounds like it comes from an established songbook, something able to be reinterpreted in an entirely different genre context and retain its beauty. It’s one of the most validating moments of his whole 2020 project.