James Franco works hard to be a contemporary renaissance man. He’s an Academy Award–nominated actor, a published novelist, and a poet with several college degrees. He has staged Chekhov plays with performance artist Marina Abramović, is making a movie about the production of cult film The Room, and is set to direct the film adaptation of last year’s famous Zola Twitter saga.
And, of course, James Franco also makes music. He sings and writes as one half of the duo Daddy, formed with his former RISD classmate and musician Tim O’Keefe. The band put out a Motown tribute EP called Motorcity in 2012 – “inspired,” Franco said, by his experience filming Oz the Great and Powerful in Detroit. Even with an assist from Smokey Robinson, it was a lukewarm, lo-fi affair whose groovy ’70s nostalgia had more in common with Burger Records’ discography than Motor City history. Now Daddy are back with their full-length debut, Let Me Get What I Want, based on Franco’s 2014 poetry book, Directing Herbert White: Poems. Herbert White is the name of a 14-minute short film that Franco wrote and directed in 2010, which was “about a psychopath from his own point of view.” The poems were ostensibly inspired by The Smiths – at least in the sense that they share their titles with famous Morrissey-Marr compositions. But this album isn’t really about either of those things.
Let Me Get What I Want doesn’t sound much like The Smiths, unless you count the muted echoes of that band that it shares with a thousand other post-1985 indie acts. Where Morrissey used his distinctive fluttering baritone to disrupt even a lyric as simple as “I’m so sorry,” Franco and O’Keefe meekly sing-talk their way through their minimalist lyrics, their meek voices clouded by synths. This is a snail’s-pace shoegaze slog, a distant cousin of dreary, long-winded ’90s bands like Slowdive and Ride. But even those bands had peaks and valleys. Let Me Get What I Want, instead, goes all-in on plodding ambience that sounds like it comes straight from a canned GarageBand preset, with most songs tediously stretching on for at least five minutes (and sometimes more).
To talk about the songwriting of Let Me Get What I Want, you also have to talk about Franco’s work as a poet. What he’s done on this record is taken his verses from Directing Herbert White: Poems and converted them into songs, word for word. For the most part, he just recites these stanzas in a singsong voice, sometimes latching onto a single phrase and repeating it in a failed attempt to make a hook. “I’m a sword swallower, I’m a sword swallower,” he repeats, over and over, on the first track of the same name, based on his poem “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” in which he writes, “Sterling: His name like a sword reflecting light in a dark room. I’m the sword swallower.” On the song “I Think That I Loved Him,” Franco basically recites his poem about car crashes, “Girlfriend in a Coma,” in watery vocals, with no real effort to turn his halfhearted stanzas into anything musically memorable. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is one of the Smiths’ most enduring classics because of Morrissey’s morbidly romantic wit – he makes a car crash sound like a dream date, just because he can. The Smiths’ jauntily macabre “Girlfriend in a Coma” is similarly canonical. But Franco’s lyrics don’t even begin to touch the level of those songs’ dark humor; these are dressed-up books on tape, mediocre poems that make for unconvincing songs. Inviting comparisons between the two seems masochistic at best.
Even more perplexing is the way Franco, 37, marinates in his nostalgia for grade school. “When I was in seventh grade, I put kids in three categories: sports kids, smart kids, and social kids,” he offers on the largely spoken-word track “Car Ride Home.” On the bubbly “Graduation Day,” he sings “Graduation day, I’ll be gone / And you, you never knew me,” like he’s the emo kid in your class who thinks he invented Tumblr. This preoccupation carries over to the music videos that accompany the album – abstract clips featuring high school students that are neither narratively interesting nor fun to watch. The band has said that the videos are shot in the “Lynchian style reminiscent of Twin Peaks,” but, really, they just look like a bunch of recycled “make your own PSA!” assignments some kids shot for their health class and filtered through Photo Booth app effects.
James Franco is an artist whose entire career can come off as an overreach. He’s a mainstream Hollywood celebrity who seems to pine for cult status instead, befriending art-world stars like Klaus Biesenbach and remaking beloved camp films. Let Me Get What I Want might seem another overly arty experiment – but the real problem is that it doesn’t take enough risks. It’s a cheap, one-note joke about nothing, offering no heat, no palpable ideas that translate beyond the creators’ minds. Instead of a compelling reason for its existence, it offers a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.