Wednesday, 7 November 2007


As grunge ruled the roast at Sub Pop (and briefly the music world) this record truly stood out as something different and something special held in amongst so much long hair and fuzz. So many scenes have a person like Steven Jesse Bernstein and it is because they need them.
Bernstein was regarded the Beat writer poet of the scene and he certainly had an output to match such a title. He was friends with William S. Burroughs and had a history of depression. It was probably this sad reality that saw him taking his own life at the age of 40 by stabbing himself in the throat.
Released on April fool’s day in 1992 the original concept of Prison was to be a live recording of a reading made by Bernstein at the State Penitentiary Special Offender unit in Monroe, Washington in the style of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison album. Unfortunately in the end the results were not necessarily usable so Steve Fisk was brought in to finish off the project using a method of scoring the recordings with jazz and ambient samples. In the end the record sounds better than its intention. Sadly the record was only partially complete when Bernstein took his life in October 1991.
Spread over ten tracks despite being born from such torturous origins this is actually a highly dynamic and often exhilarating album. Steve Fisk truly did a great job with the production and sound effects as the piercing voice of Bernstein rails over rather than against a tough set of sonic.
The album is book ended by the “No No Man” deliveries. The second part has since gone on to be probably the best-known track from Steven Jesse Bernstein eventually winding up being played over the opening sequence/titles of Natural Born Killers (even if it didn’t make the cut on the Trent Reznor soundtrack). The upbeat jazz backing reminds of a better, more exciting time where opportunities felt more plausible and kicks were not so hard to find. This is very cool. Bernstein is the No No Man, a person feeling lost in the shuffle and frustrated for it. Immediately he sounds at odds with the situation, looking to burn some reality into a spectrum that does not necessarily want (but needs) to hear it. The song sounds so perfect that I have often played it while DJing not least for the stinging opening line of “the stars are coming out” which promptly leads onto a heavy list of ordinary madness.
As things move on Fisk manages to squeeze out some heavy beats that often reminds of the collaboration between William S. Burroughs and The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy with bass that sounds like moving furniture.
On the whole the record displays a dense degree of self loathing and hostility to the world, often delivered in vividly aggressive and violent description. This is a hard existence to take. Against this however a few tender moments emerge such as “More Noise Please” which reminds of Jim Carroll perhaps rolling over the Blade Runner soundtrack. It feels like a rare moment of empathy in an otherwise troubled selection.
Love receives harsh treatment as “The Sport” offers a vivid take on proceedings over two parts ending in the ejaculation of a gunshot. Then “Party Balloon” manages to take and make something pleasant and apply so much misery to an object that holds joy and potential. Here Bernstein proves the kind of person that is grounded six feet under. He does concede how he “doesn’t understand my own thinking” but it still feels frighteningly fetishistic. Did this man ever experience a single jolt of happiness, ever laugh?
“Face” is the horrible towering epic of the piece. Over the course of twelve minutes he serves to debase himself while recounting and reliving many horrific moments from his life. Without backing it is the starkest recollection on the record pounding out like a magnified and horrific Bukowski passage. No one need suffer this much for their art. It sounds like the ugliest thing in existence, Hell on earth.
More muffled jazz serves as the backing for “This Clouded Heart” which is another pained description of a time and a place that does not feel welcoming to a newcomer. These barbed descriptions never relent as the imagery encountered and delivered on spot uncovers a world of seedy supreme that would best be buried.
And any reference to “The Man Upstairs” does not necessarily refer to God.
When it’s over I feel bludgeoned. Ultimately this is not an easy record to take in as Bernstein’s delivery proves quite monotone and relentless which proves both its strength and undoing. It also sounds at times terrifying and disturbing rendering it a piece of work you do not necessarily feel inclined to share or inflict on another person for fear that they may call your intentions into question. A blunt piece of mystery.
Thesaurus moment: incarcerate.
Steven Jesse Bernstein
Sub Pop

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