Selling Things is a cathartic project for Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Brian Dunne, drawing on a difficult year spent wrestling with mental health and an existential crisis. Yet, you can right away hear the unbridled passion in Dunne’s expressive voice. He’s got plenty to let go of and he’s determined to make the most of it, whether using dark humor or being clever, or being brutally honest. This about losing control and emerging better on the other side. If you’ve heard the single, “Chasing Down a Ghost” you realize how an appreciation for the mundane can translate to a terrific song. And, he has several of them here.
Recorded in Los Angeles with producer/mixer/engineer Andrew Sarlo (Big Thief, Caroline Rose), is not all introspective and personal. It tries to balance the personal and political as it contemplates an impending apocalypse that feels more literal and less metaphorical with each passing day. (And, this is all obviously “BC”, before coronavirus. One shudders to think what his songs might be like in that context – see below for the addendum). Dunne writes with a cinematic eye for detail with fully developed character sketches and vignettes that capture seemingly inconsequential moments that only later reveal their profundity.
“When I was growing up, my dad had all these cassette tapes that we’d listen to in the car,” says Dunne. “We never had air conditioning, though, so the tapes would start to melt and get this creepy, warbly sound, which I thought about a lot when I was recording this album. I wanted to make something that felt like those cassettes, something that was equal parts exciting and mysterious and a little bit scary, because that’s what it feels like to be alive right now…. The songs on this album don’t come with a lot of resolution,” says Brian Dunne. “As a writer, your instinct can be to try and wrap things up in neat little bows and promise everybody that everything’s going to be alright, but that just didn’t feel real to me.” Reflect on those prescient statements in our current stay-at-home situation. Accepting things for how they are is incredibly hard right now, but we have no choice.
In 2007, Dunne headed to Boston for college, where he first met Sarlo, and shortly after graduation, he relocated to Brooklyn to pursue music full time. Things didn’t go so well initially so he began the hard work of building a fan base gig by gig. He released a pair of acclaimed albums— 2015’s Songs From The Hive and 2017’s Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements—that garnered frequent airplay on SiriusXM and helped land him dates with high profile acts. Dunne kept in touch with Sarlo all the while, and in 2016, when he began writing the songs that would land on this album, he shared a batch of early demos that prompted the breakout producer to invite him to L.A. to record. The songs were bolder and more direct than anything in Dunne’s catalog, drawn from a trying year.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on with me,” reflects Dunne. “I started to spiral due to what I later learned was obsessive compulsive disorder, but at the time, I was undiagnosed and medicating myself with booze and drugs. It got pretty gnarly, and for a while, I thought I was genuinely losing my mind.” Dunne saw his inner turmoil reflected in the world around him that year in the divisiveness of a bitter election cycle. In some ways, it added insult to injury, but in others, it made him feel less alone as he came to terms with his diagnosis. “I had to learn to accept that I wasn’t in control of everything,” says Dunne, “and I saw that become abundantly clear to a lot of other people in November of 2016. As disappointing as it was, there was an odd comfort in knowing that other people were going through similar reckonings. Everybody was coming to terms all at once with the possibility that our ideas about ourselves and our country might not be real.”
Okay, that’s a long preamble but is essential to understanding where his songs are rooted. For example, these lyrics come from Nothing Matters Anymore,” self-aware survey of life in America where lies mingle with the truth to the extent it’s difficult to discern the difference – “I used to worry bout the way I talked / I used to think about the way I thought / I used to talk about myself a lot / But nothing matters anymore,” he sings. That notion can be taken two ways – in a political context or just personally freeing oneself from expectations. Fingerpicked opener “Harlem River Drive” spins a traffic stop into a gorgeous metaphor for the never-ending struggle to be present, while the atmospheric title track with its eBay reference reflects on ways we deceive ourselves, and the heartrending “Chasing Down A Ghost” grapples with acceptance as Dunne admits, “All my life I don’t know / Honey how to let it go / How to learn to stand with what I am / And what I cannot control.”
The iconic songwriter Richard Thompson once said that it’s a lot more interesting writing dark songs, which seems to come naturally to Dunne although ultimately as mentioned at the outset, there’s a tone of quiet triumph, the realization of life on the bottom creating appreciation for just being alive. The chiming “Walk Me Home,” for instance, overcomes fear and paranoia for a shot at human connection, while the bittersweet “Getting Wrecked On Election Day” celebrates silver linings, and the soaring “Like A Drug” declares its allegiance to honesty and vulnerability, even if it means getting hurt sometimes. “There may not be a lot of resolution in these songs, but there was resolution in the act of writing them,” Dunne concludes. “Anytime you’re able to take something difficult and turn it into a positive for yourself or for other people, that feels like some kind of magic. That these songs exist at all is the happy ending.”
Ironically, we are all struggling now, worried about loved ones, uncertain how life will be “AD,” after disease. We’re all in self-reflective mode now and we can all relate to the lack of resolution in Dunne’s songs. In a weird way, they can help us be stoic through this. To that end, you may be interested in this:
Watch “Uppers & Downers” Via Youtube:
Explaining the concept, Dunne says: “‘Uppers & Downers’ is a live streamed show where I take my 60 mgs of Prozac and then read negative reviews or rejection emails and see which one wins out in the end. I will also act as the musical guest each week, performing one happy song and one sad song, but honestly, probably two pretty sad songs. If you are losing your mind, this will be a good show for you. It airs Wednesdays at 3:30pm ET.
- Jim Hynes