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Cancer and Delirium

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Album Review

J. Tillman's fourth solo album, 2007's lo-fi Cancer and Delirium, takes its title from a line in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a nod to Paris where he wrote much of the album. Tillman doesn't take any startling leaps in sound from prior albums with this release, though there is certainly noticeably less country twang here than in his third record, Minor Works, perhaps moving him from alt country-rock more squarely into indie folk territory. Yet Tillman is above other labels a singer/songwriter. Efficient arrangements split the difference between his previous releases. The record opens simply with vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica on "Visions of a Troubled Mind," but later other instruments, including drums, make appearances. Even at its densest, though, Cancer and Delirium is a quiet album, and a sincere one. Despite its subdued tone and introspective character — and its title — the album isn't relentlessly grim. The tempo picks up on "Milk White Air"; banjo brightens the color in spots; and "Under the Sun" is practically a singalong, like a muted, inward-turned "Give Peace a Chance" with repeated lyrics: "Under the sun/In your own time/This too shall pass." Alternately, the aching lament "A Fine Suit," with its infallibly earnest vocals and wistful melody, features accompaniment including guitar, piano, and saw, each playing single-note lines that seem to weep alongside him. Tillman's records are notable for giving focus to his emotive, intimate vocal performances and lyrics, and this one is no exception. Though still in his mid-twenties here, his slightly rust-worn, rich tone is attention-grabbing and addictive even while projecting at near minimum force. It's impressive to remember that Tillman is also (and originally) a professional drummer when he is so skilled in the singer/songwriter role. Cancer and Delirium isn't for those who like their instruments to be perfectly in tune, or their music and musicians to be brawny, but it may be a windfall for those who appreciate or even love the real clicks and squeaks that come from the guitar of a guy feeling raw and singing live and unamplified on the other end of the bed.


Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Singer/songwriter J. Tillman's music paints languid, sadly beautiful portraits of love and life on the margins with the moody depth of Nick Drake and the country-influenced textures of Ryan Adams. Tillman first made a name for himself playing drums in a pair of indie rock bands, Saxon Shore and Stately, while attending college in New York City. In his spare time, however, he began writing material of his own, citing the music of Nick Drake and Pete Seeger and the writings of Flannery O'Connor as...
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Cancer and Delirium, J. Tillman
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