In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan finds it difficult to express his true feelings. In order to fit in with society his fractured personality often takes on a disturbingly jovial form. Barry does everything possible to keep people at bay, even if that involves smashing up his clingy sister’s living room windows.
Chicago rapper, comedian, wrestler and podcaster Open Mike Eagle (real name Michael Eagle) has also made an art out of masking his emotions, using subversive jokes to throw listeners off the scent across colourful albums that intelligently poke holes in the notion of the human condition. In Sandler’s character, Eagle says he instantly recognised a kindred spirit. “I just related to how Barry seeks to keep people at a distance,” he tells me after I remark that bars such as ‘On that laugh to keep from crying tip / no one seems to know when I’m joking’ (from 2014’s diary-entry ‘Dark Comedy Morning Show’) reminded me of Barry.
“Barry points to how he’s feeling but doesn’t go into specifics,” Eagle continues. “When people ask me how I’m feeling it makes me so uncomfortable. He has that in him, too. He doesn’t really want anyone to know who he is. A big thrust of the movie is Barry finding a woman he wants to get to know but having no idea what to do. He’s trying to control his own narrative, but different forces conspire to take that away from him. I can relate to that. The fact that Punch-Drunk Love transforms going to the supermarket into this otherworldly event made a real impression on me, because that’s what I try to do with my music. I try to find whimsy in mundane, everyday stuff.”
It’s clear that the romantic narrative of Punch-Drunk Love means a lot to Eagle. Yet it was the film’s “off-centre” music – steered by composer Jon Brion, who improvised many of the songs live on set while Anderson described the sounds in his head – that made the biggest impression on the rapper. The film begins with a harmonium melody that’s clearly out of key and twitchy synths that seem to echo the displacement of Barry’s life – sounds that signify an outsider.
However, as the character falls deeper in love, becoming less and less insular, the chords trade their disparate feel for the kind of doe-eyed optimism you might find in an old Disney movie. This emotional metamorphosis is completed with Brion’s use of ‘He Needs Me’ – a love song originally from Robert Altman’s Popeye – during a climatic dinner date in Hawaii.
“Barry feels like a flat note in most of the scenes he’s in, and I love how the music reflects that,” says Mike, who remembers looping the Sgt Pepper’s-esque ‘Overture’ into a beat he wrote lyrics to at college. “Jon Brion has these same templates he revisits; he keeps on doing a slightly different spin on the same musical idea. It’s kind of like sampling, and there’s something very hip hop about that. He shows how our inner monologue can evolve as we become sadder or happier. It’s experimental, sure, but the music also feels like these old bright show tunes. Some of it wouldn’t be out of place in Fantasia.”
In the same way Barry becomes more honest with his emotions as the film progresses, it feels like Eagle has undergone his own transformation. His album ‘Anime, Trauma and Divorce’, released earlier this year, finds Eagle trying to plot a new path while considering his limitations. The music was recorded while he was going through a painful separation, yet he somehow makes hitting rock bottom feel therapeutic. A chance to heal. The lyric “I need more fingers to pick up the pieces”, from funky album highlight ‘Bucciarati’, acts as both a window to Eagle’s soul and an allegory for the overwhelming hopelessness of 2020.
So, has the artist changed? And is he now less interested in pushing people away, or masking his feelings with jokes? “I am definitely kind of a dark person,” he admits. “I spent a lot of my career trying not to acknowledge it and trying to talk around it. Usually I would record a dark song for an album before going back and completely changing the lyrics. I really needed to confront some of that darkness and put it on this record. It’s an album about cycles of trauma.”
Although at times it sounds like Eagle is struggling to carry this weight, he also maintains his trademark wit, whether that’s through poking fun at yuppies with asses for heads or reflecting on how life sometimes feels like one big Black Mirror episode. There’s something inspiring about hearing him crack jokes knowing he was experiencing one of the lowest points of his life. “I guess that’s proof I am still fighting, no matter how heavy things get.”
Eagle says his next project will be a lot brighter than ‘Anime, Trauma and Divorce’. “It isn’t going to be as reflective. Honestly, I am feeling like I really need to flex my rap skills. I want to double down on rap as a craft and show that I’m one of the best. I sense that’s becoming valuable again to hip hop culture.” Might it include a song as innocent and tender as ‘He Needs Me’? “Only if I can rap about loving someone so much that I want to chew their face and scoop out their eyeballs,” Eagle replies, giggling. “I like to use language like Barry does!”
Whatever the future holds, Eagle says he can’t picture a day where he won’t turn to Brion’s score for inspiration. “If you are ever on a city bus and just want to go to another world then I’d say put the Punch-Drunk Love score on your headphones. It’s a really pretty thing without ever feeling too much. You could listen to Brion’s arrangements 100 times and still pick up on something new. There’s a lot of words on an Open Mike Eagle album – I try my best to make my music that way too.”
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