Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
The large majority of Chuck Prophet’s public, and indeed his record reviewers, are automatically going to love everything that he releases. After all, he’s Chuck fuckin’ Prophet, and the music that he makes doesn’t suck. The Green On Red alumnus’ handle on Golden Gate-sized pop hooks, gilded in finest sunny Telecaster, is more than evident from his twelfth solo release Temple Beautiful’s opening two punch combo, ‘Play That Song Again’, and ‘Castro Halloween’, whose jubilant guitar peals could probably lift the fog that so often socks in the Bay Area city that Temple Beautiful is dedicated to and largely concerns.
It’s here, around the arrival of the Stonesy skronk of the title track, that the well-trained cynic can start to question proceedings. ‘Temple Beautiful’, hip-shakin’ and lewd as it is, feels just the wrong side of retrophilia, channeling Ferry as well as Jagger to near-awkward effect. It’s the kind of cutesy tip of the cap to icons of a former age, without any actual updating of their attitude, that has a tendency to let Temple Beautiful down at times – the same can be said of ‘White Night, Big City’ and its unremarkable revisitation of New Wave Doo Wop. Prophet’s heavily affected drawl, as well, can ham things up a little too much, and coupled with certain aspects of his lyricism, the whole delivery can grate. ‘The Museum of Broken Hearts’, if not given away by its title, is the worst culprit, laying every left-of-centre cliché at our feet, noting the museum’s occupants as "a caveman, a prison guard, a soccer mom, a whore." That said, ‘The Museum of Broken Hearts’ is followed by the technicolour, psyched-out narrative of ‘Willie Mays Is Up At Bat’, proving that when Prophet turns off the autopilot and starts flying the damn thing himself, the whole ride turns out much more exciting.
Luckily, for all Temple Beautiful’s retrogressive leanings, Prophet more often than not takes the wheel himself, and gives us his own skewed take on San Francisco. The album’s mid-section, in particular, feels like a warped taxi tour around a dreamscape version of the city. ‘The Left Hand And The Right Hand’ is a tenderly observed vignette of warring musical brothers, ‘I Felt Like Jesus’ a triumphant slice of barroom Americana easily as uplifting as anything Springsteen’s deigned to release in the last few decades, while ‘Who Shot John’ covers itself in a haze of paranoia and potsmoke, airlifting itself to San Fran from Vietnam in a firestorm of squalling leads.
When Prophet hits those kind of high water marks, it’s difficult to argue that Temple Beautiful doesn’t achieve what it set out to achieve. As far as homages to hometowns go, it splices more recognizable San Franciscan landmarks and personality (Market Street, that Dan White/Harvey Milk interaction, the titular Temple) with some deepfried post-Beat, post-‘Nam poetry, and all in a sunny All-American jangle that’s really, really hard to dislike. At first, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not question Chuck Prophet’ felt a little too dogmatic, and perhaps Temple Beautiful isn’t boundary-pushing, genre-defining, or a masterpiece, but then again, who said it had to be?