For nearly two decades, Beaver Nelson went about his work as a singer-songwriter is wont to do: He’d write songs, put together about a dozen of them, then make a record and play some shows. His new project is “Macro/Micro,” which arrives five years after his previous record. “Macro/Micro” isn’t exactly a new set of a dozen songs. It’s a sprawling, philosophical, funny and rocking thing, a concept album minus spaceships with an accompanying video that runs the length of the recording. Nelson’s longtime guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb likely came up with the best description for the album: It sounds like “Quadrophenia” as written by Townes Van Zandt.
Nelson will premiere the new album at Anderson Fair on Saturday, a month before “Macro/Micro” officially goes on sale. He’ll play guitar and sing along with a projection of the film, which will include the rest of the music from “Macro/Micro.” The choice to play it first in here has to do with his roots: A Houston native, Nelson wanted to play the show at Anderson Fair because the club has opened its stage to him for years. He also points out that many of the donations for the Kickstarter campaign that helped him complete the album and film came from people in Houston.
“It seemed like the perfect place to try to pull this off for the first time,” he says. But he admits, “there’s some nerves about it. Nerves on the technical end of things. Like, ‘Will this work?’ I’m not a tech guy. But it’s something I wanted to do. To have this idea and to physically do it. To have to learn, ‘Where does this wire go?’ ‘How do I make this happen?’ I’m excited about what there is to learn.”
Not surprisingly the album’s creation and development came about differently than his other projects. For the first time Nelson did much of the composing on the keyboard. “... Your Impending Doom” was built on a piano figure Nelson wrote years ago at a memorial service for a friend. That figure bubbles to the surface several times on the record, but most prominently on “Doom,” which starts as a stately march before shifting to a Crazy Horse-like electric guitar stomp. As often as possible Nelson tried to keep the lyrics away from his backing band.
“I didn’t want them to know what the lyrics were because I didn’t want sympathetic playing,” he says. “These guys are really good at that, and it’s a very difficult skill to learn. But I needed them to just play and let the music have its own tension and structure that sometimes goes against the lyrical content as opposed to with it. And it created some interesting dynamics.”
Lyrically Nelson tried a different approach, projecting outward more and moving away from a more personalized style. “I wanted to do something that was less a description of how I view life and the world,” he says. “Trying to assert some commonality. As opposed to, ‘This is what makes me unique,’ I wanted it to be more, ‘This is what makes us common.’”
Thematically the album contrasts youthful imagery and experiences with the complexities of adulthood. It doesn’t quite run from the cradle to the grave, but it certainly jumps back and forth between childhood and worldly discovery and aging and mortality — discovery of less wondrous sort.
“It’s not really linear, I guess because it’s more of a psychological arc than a lifetime arc,” Nelson says. “But there are certain psychological processes that we all go through as human beings — unless the story is interrupted by a car accident or something. Anyone who lives a normal span of life has these certain delusions that we have to let go of.”
For Nelson it’s been a recent “progression for me to move more from an idealist to the practical. I’m probably still more an idealist than many people, but I had to take this crash course in pragmatism because I didn’t think in practical terms for many decades of my life. The practical seemed like it was great for someone else. I didn’t need that. It was boring. But if you leave the idealist in charge you get great-sounding ideas that don’t work.”
The creation of “Macro/Micro” seemed to require both the idealist and the pragmatist. “The market wasn’t telling me I had to do this, there wasn’t a record label ordering me to do it,” he says. “So there was a certain amount of idealism that provided the fuel for doing it, but there was also this practical side that I needed a crash course in. This slow movement toward doing new things. Trying to put new tools in the shed.”
He worries that “all of this could sound so off-putting to people,” which is why the album is threaded with some of the funniest lines of Nelson’s career, a construct that he likely picked up from Bob Dylan.
“I hope people see where the jokes are, where I’m poking fun of myself or existence,” he says. “The nature of discovery is that you find something and you think how neat you are for finding it. And then you realize Socrates already covered that ground. It takes a long time to realize there’s nothing new under the sun, but that being the case, I still tried to make something a little different. Maybe not different, but I don’t think people are doing something like this every day.”