It's difficult to take Vincent Gallo seriously. This is the man, after all, who on his website offers his body to any “natural born woman” who can afford the princely fee of $50,000 for a weekend. Potential clients who doubt whether they will be able to accommodate all of Mr. Gallo are advised to “test themselves with an unusually thick and large prosthetic prior to meeting me”.
Thankfully Gallo drops the tongue-in-cheek rent-boy persona on When while still leaving room for the odd gag here and there. Album-opener, the drolly titled “I wrote this song for the girl Paris Hilton”, layers soft electric guitar noodling over a short downtempo jazzy loop. Moderately effective at first, almost succeeding in evoking one of those smoke and blue neon nightscapes, the woozy territory of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score. Unfortunately, Gallo’s noodling does not do much more than just keep diffidently noodling. There’s no attempt at evolving an immersive sonic tapestry. Nor is there any melodic interest to give the piece a bit of direction. The whole thing starts to drag after a while and one’s finger creeps furtively, inexorably, towards the skip button.
This weak introduction actually belies the quality of some of the music on this record. When is at its best when Gallo allows his beautifully candid tenor voice to take over proceedings. The title-track, immediately following “I wrote this song…” is a case in point. Gallo’s distinctive vibrato enchants with a melancholy confessional over spartan picked guitar accompaniment: “When you come near to me, I go away, When things are clear to me I go away. What is not here for me, I go away.” Clearly, the song’s lyrics are remarkably uninteresting from a literary point of view. However, this lyrical naivety actually turns out to be one of the record’s strongest propositions.
On “Honey Bunny”, for example, another stronger track, Gallo intones: “Honey bunny, my baby girl friend… Every day I think of your smile… We are dreamers”, and so on. Essentially just strings of clichés, these non-lyrics, coming from Gallo’s honeyed pipes somehow become empowered through the warmth of his vibrato. Though the view of love they project is cheesy, and kind of un-PC, Gallo’s clichés have a purity to them. We are reminded that poetry is inherently artificial, while the cliché is instinctive, capturing our experiences raw and simple, before cleverness got involved and corrupted self-expression.
Unfortunately, the strong vocal track alternating with the insipid instrumental becomes a pattern that mars the whole record. “My Beautiful White Dog” mixes slowed-down hip-hop drum loops in a sub-Portishead style with sombre orchestral samples and absent-minded guitar thrumming, to singularly dreary effect. “Was” is a pointless wandering duet for fuzzed-up Rhodes and vibes, and the record closes with “A Picture Of You”, a six minutes and 44 seconds dribbled puddle of multi-tracked guitar boringness. By the end of the record even Gallo’s lyrical simplicity has begun to grate. “Yes I’m Lonely”'s chorus of “It could be so nice” is a case in point – surely it could be better than merely “nice”, Vincent? What about “effervescent”, or “jubilant” or any other of the thousands of adjectives in the English language more nuanced and better equipped to capture the uniqueness of a shared erotic moment than “nice”?