(Los Angeles) I often say that poetry is not dead, we just call it lyrics now. Zach Callison has taken that to Shakespearean levels. His EP, The Picture Perfect Hollywood Heartbreak – really the score for a Broadway musical – is filled with theatrical passion, anger, love, and most of all, musical language that burns like a comet as it streaks through your auditory nerves.
Callison, a young man who started performing at 7 years old, played in bands and sang solo in his teens, gives voice to Cartoon’s Network’s multilevel animated series Steven Universe, is flirting with genius with this debut EP. It has all the earmarks of lasting art, of a powerful new take on what we expect from singers and songwriters He brings us a story as fresh as Steven Universe and as powerful as Hamlet.
The EP is the chronicle of the breakup of Zach and “Juanita”, a celebrity LA-based singer
(“ Juanita” is a pseudonym). But it is much more. It is the story of the transformation of a person, Zach, from one version of himself to another, and the agony that can sometimes accompany a metamorphosis. Overlaid on this is a cautionary tale of how the music and entertainment industries can eat people alive, especially children like Zach who started young. Influenced by Muse and Kendrick, Callison takes this story to a new level beyond his influencers to a work of art that is transformative in multiple ways.
The CD’s 9 tracks – five songs and four interludes — range from ballads to rap to musical conversation, all done with a professionalism and skill that belies Callison’s scant 21 years. In 30 minutes of stunning music Zach takes us through a Hollywood romance – his – and shows us the strange, twisted things that Hollywood can do to something we all take for granted, love.
He begins the story seductively with :”Phantom Love” spinning out his lyrical genius as he ramps up the drumming and sings Go in twice, you sold two souls of children to the business, a cry about the end of his own relationship and the destruction he sees wrought by the music business. As we absorb that, he ramps up again into high speed, high power rap, a preview of what is to come. We know we are in for a ride.
The ride launches and then screams downward in “She Don’t Know”, the next chapter in the story as Callison threatens to go out of control lyrically with the powerful, if not radio friendly, lyrics: Fucked up on my bedroom floor, and my first thought’s let’s do more. Hamlet-like, Callison descends further, and deeper inside himself:
Love and poison, all the same/
They share these interchangeable names/And I’m jonesing for the dopamine
These things are the means to my end.
But as we see the end rushing up at us, the music shifts to a more pop rock/bluesy feeling with jazzy piano. The combination is perfect, the crash averted for the time being, but is still visible ahead.
“Nightmare” is the crash, the rock bottom. But it comes gently with a very interior rap – almost as if Callison has his lips next to your ear, confessing to you, to himself. As the drums come in, the piano adds accents and a distant note fills out the voice rapping to you intimately as you feel the cynical bottom with him, the knowledge that there is no way out:
But no surprise the nightmares only get worse/When he takes the pills/For the first time
Poison is some kind/Kill the noise in his own mind
He’s seriously delirious and deliriously serious
Oh my dear sister Christie/I think his end might be nearin’ us
Nothing can fix the fear in us
The writing is genius, the delivery is like nothing I ever heard: he is in my ear, my mind, my soul in a way that I had not understood that earbuds/headphones/speakers could deliver.
But he has not finished with us, not by a long shot. “Curtain Call” brings us to the climax where the two versions of Zach collide. At this point we slip into today’s reality because there are two versions of Zach Callison, the squeaky clean, happy smiling version that is Steven Universe and the glowering, tormented Hamlet-like figure that raps and rages in this CD and onstage. He begins with a bible verse in soft Italian before he launches into this commentary on mental illness, the self-medication all around us, and its failure to assuage or redeem. Carried along by frantic drumming and gut-punching electric guitar riffs alternating with a languid punctuation of violins and tinkling piano — and a gunshot — the lyrics Bourbon to kill my pain/Curtains to hold my shame/No they can’t look away/Cannot contain my rage burn into our brains.
We are given no chance to catch our breath as “Interlude” IV opens with a tick-tock and a raging conversation between Callison and Sister Christi (played by fellow Steven Universe voice actor Grace Rolek) over who will take Juanita down. As the piece hurtles forward, Callison takes on the full responsibility to “Do it by myself”, unscored by pounding kick drums. All I can say is “wow!”.
But, as with “Curtain Call”. Callison is not done with us. We still have the final song, “War”, the final battle with Juanita. There are no boundaries, musical, lyrically, emotionally in “War”. This is a nuclear battlefield, the conflict conducted in rap and drums and choruses and sarcastic conversation. A tour de force, or better yet, a tour de guerre. Again, all I can say is “wow!”.
Zach did not see the power of what he was creating as it developed, although his drive was to build a coherent concept album that told a story – his personal requirement for every song as well as for the album as a whole. The story in A Picture Perfect Hollywood Breakup is vast musically and allegorically while it is intensely personal. Callison’s skill in conjuring up cinematic imagery with musical arrangements and vocal delivery is unparalleled, especially in rap. He creates a cosmic battlefield, both emotionally and musically through which we can see the armies storming, propelled by Kendrick-like rap and Lin Manuel Miranda-like wit. And even more amazing, this is his debut album. I see a legend in the making…or rather I am listening to one
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