The experience of watching someone who really knows how to do something actually doing it can be disorienting. You’ve probably felt it yourself, watching a movie with an acting performance so seamless, the actor has completely disappeared into his or her role. Or maybe it comes to you like a book that, somewhere around page 30, stops being words on a page but instead becomes a world unto itself.
That’s about the only way I can describe Bill Lloyd’s Boy King of Tokyo.
Released in 2012, the album displays a degree of dynamism you just don’t get much of anymore. Comprised of 14 songs, you get fast and slow, sweet and sour, comical and caustic, and two instrumental tributes, just in case you felt Lloyd wasn’t covering every base.
It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. A songsmith lifer, Lloyd is one-half of the Foster & Lloyd duo (with Radney Foster). He has worked as a session musician for even longer, and in the challenging gauntlet of Nashville’s Music Row, he’s held his own.
So he has the history to back him up, but so what? Lots of musicians have history, and bleakly, those who wind up with long, storied careers often do so by faintly repeating themselves over and over, cautiously reminding you, “Remember the good days? This shouldn’t sound familiar, but it does, and not in a fresh way.”
It had to have been a conscious effort to have each song develop its unique personality, while at the same time, sounding a piece with the rest of the record. Boy King of Tokyo’s opening title cut recounts Lloyd’s young years as “a gaijin B.R.A.T.,” a child of military people, “born, raised, and trained.” A bouncy power-pop number with a bit of barroom sleaze in the instrumental breakdown, Lloyd intuits what seemed like a privileged youth suddenly upended when his family moved back to the states and he became, for the first time, an average kid. With great humor, he recalls his mother saying, “She went from post-war to post-partum.”
Humor also factors into the short but effective “Com-Trol” wherein Lloyd stealthily jabs back at an entertainment industry which increasingly grows divorced from its mission. In it, the fictional Com-Trol Communications is owned by a music company, owned by a movie studio, owned by a major telecom, owned by a multinational conglomerate, owned by the military-industrial complex. He opines about how the heart of music creation is lost amid sheer commodification, but he never goes on a self-righteous screed.
If anything, Lloyd takes the opposite tactic, employing sarcasm and self-deprecation. He states how he wrote a song about the death of his mother, the rights to which were sold to a fast-food chain to sell fried chicken. He says that he could do something drastic about it, but, “Mom liked her chicken and I like getting paid.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the dreamy “Up In The Air” pairs strummed acoustic guitars and pillowy vocal harmonies. The trenchant “The Fix Is In” contains (barely) a raging disdain that explodes in guitar fireworks in the instrumental bridge. “Home Jeeves” is a Stones-y honky tonking rocker full of fed-up, while “We Got The Moon” sways with romantic urges. In some strange sense, both directions conclude with the album’s final track, “Mistakes Were Made.”
Every track has its own feel, its own goal to achieve, and in lesser hands, the record would sound disjointed and unfocused. Contrarily, everything on Boy King of Tokyo sounds like it is exactly where it needs to be.
I’d love to say that the record has become a cult classic in the nearly ten years since its debut. It hasn’t but it’s not too late to get swept up in Bill Lloyd’s uncompromised skill. And I promise you, it won’t feel like work at all.