WORK’s latest album marks a bittersweet, brief return to Milwaukee’s music scene
Ask Joseph Cannon about some of the overarching lyrical themes on his punk band WORK’s new album and he’ll flip the vinyl sleeve over to reveal the track listing on the back.
“This one’s about grad school,” Cannon says as he points to the title “As It Turns Out, He Didn’t Actually Have Tuberculosis.”
He briefly explains that a song called “Jesus Diapered Our Sins” is a “weird fantasy” about a hypothetical hostage situation.
And he affirms that the song titled “Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey” is about whiskey.
As Cannon recalls his inspirations for the 11 tracks, he exhibits an assortment of reactions. He is puzzled and amused by his own ideas. At times, he pauses to think. At other moments, he is overcome with laughter.
Cannon’s big, bushy beard is peppered with gray, like a more recent Jim Carrey — and a contrast to the clean-shaven face seen in the videos of the band performing live.
Cannon alternates between stroking the beard and wiping coffee from the whiskers as he thinks.
“I write in a very odd way,” Cannon says before pulling a notebook from his bag. He shows several pages from the book containing scribbles of ideas — pieces of songs that may or may not ever find their place in a cohesive whole. The book contains tornout pages folded and stuck between bound pages — lyrics from previous notebooks or perhaps thoughts scribbled in times when Cannon found himself without his trusty notebook handy.
“It’s a lot of writing and rewriting, and a lot of stuff in here has been copied and recopied from other notebooks,” says Cannon.
WORK’s latest release —the band’s third full-length, Strictly Cruis’n — is a lot like Cannon’s notebook.
The album contains autobiographical content about graduate school and an exlover. “Everybody Loves Me Like the Hole in My Head” — the first single — is named after a quote Cannon overheard while working at a group home for psychiatric patients. He couldn’t resist jotting it down. Other lines contain references to some of Cannon’s favorite literature luminaries.
“The lyrical ideas and content come from a myriad of different places,” says Cannon. “It comes from poetry or novels I’ve been reading. Some of it is vaguely topical.”
WORK’s songwriting used to be blatantly personal. The band formed in the wake of Cannon’s divorce with Wisconsin dreamfolk singer-songwriter Lady Cannon. He formed the band with drummer Kavi Laud and bassist Jeff Brueggeman — two musicians he met through weekly dinner parties.
WORK’s first album, The Long Con, was released in April 2014. Many of its songs explore the fallout from the divorce. Cannon admits that even some songs from the band’s sophomore release, Doing the Lord’s — released in February 2016 — carry over sentiments on that changing point of his life.
“WORK sort of came together — in my experience — as a way of processing what had happened,” says Cannon. “The band is very different now.”
Cannon unabashedly admits he is embarrassed of some of the emotions expressed on early songs — one reason that the band rarely performs them.
“They’re very much songs of a time,” he says.
And while those songs are representative of a very specific time in Cannon’s life, Strictly Cruis’n marks an uncertain time in the band’s life. During the recording process, Laud announced he accepted a job offer in Austin, Texas. He moved but returned to play a string of Midwest shows following the band’s album release show Aug. 31 at High Dive. It was a bittersweet return to the stage for a band that hadn’t performed since December of last year.
Cannon insists the band will not continue without Laud, but also that the band isn’t being put to rest.
“Laud is utterly irreplaceable,” he says. “We’re going to continue playing, but it’s going to be few and farther between. We’ve talked somewhat seriously about ways to collaborate and write at a distance.”
The unfortunate timing of the release of Strictly Cruis’n was out of the band’s hands.
Listeners who enjoy the album now may have to wait an indefinite amount of time to hear the songs performed live, which is a shame, because Cannon takes pride in WORK’s high-energy live performances — no matter how old he gets, no matter how much gray sprouts in his beard.
Strictly Cruis’n is a sonic embodiment of that energy.
At times, Cannon’s lyrical delivery hov-