Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Aaron Lee Tasjan is not your typical rock everyman. But then, in 2018, who is? Some musclebound would-be scion of Metallica's James Hetfield, hawking satellite radio-ready blend of guitar crunch and libertarianism? Or the emulators of the inescapable standard-bearer Springsteen, himself so somber and Steinbeckian, selling $850 seats on Broadway?
Tasjan, who's from Ohio and spent his early 20s as part of Brooklyn's dirty glam revival – which makes him Lady Gaga's kissing cousin – is a lifelong student of cool rock moves, and could fit the every-rocker part if he weren't such an oddball; or, maybe, being an oddball is what makes him so relatable. His two previous solo albums have been hazy meditations on the Bohemian lifestyle, shot through with humor and morning-after existentialism. Those qualities still surface on Karma for Cheap, but Tasjan displays a new vigor you could call a sense of mission, forming a connection with classic rock that's both more personal and more expansive than what he's achieved before.
Tasjan lives and works in East Nashville, which these days feels less like an outpost of the country industrial complex than the new Rock City, teeming with artisanally unkempt kids who love The Kinks and (especially) Tom Petty as much as they do John Prine. An ace guitarist and affable music history geek, Tasjan has helped steer the neighborhood that way. Karma for Cheap wears the legacies it joins on its velveteen sleeve – foremost that of The Beatles, as carried forward by Petty, Harry Nilsson, Jeff Lynne, and even Sheryl Crow. (Jeff Trott, one of Crow's main collaborators, coproduced the album, and Crow provides some background vocals.) Unlike many millennials, who embrace George Harrison as their Fab, Tasjan takes Paul McCartney as his muse. Like Macca, he can be sweet and rock hard at the same time, imbuing his crystalline boogie woogie with the perfume of the pre-rock dance hall. Titles like "Strange Shadows" and "Songbird" evoke sentimental balladry – there's a bit of Bowie in his Hunky Dory satin here, too, and Elton, bringing that freakiness to the people – and "Dream Dreamer" goes all the way, showcasing Tasjan's robust falsetto on a melody made for a piano bar.
This is a way of becoming pop that maintains a strong connection to rock's countercultural status, as tattered as that may be today. Tasjan's lyrics do something similar — these are big-picture meditations on ethical living, human connection and the meaning of success, but Tasjan grounds them in his own experience as an itinerant 21st-century "creative." "If Not Now When" considers the elusiveness of the working artist's dream; "Songbird" drolly bemoans the discomforts of the road. It turns out that, for millennials, the rock and roll lifestyle, with its fleeting intimacies, lack of security, and contradictory mix of dopamine rushes and ennui, is fairly typical. Tasjan gets that. In one bouncy rocker, he changes "best" to "rest" in the bromide "the best is yet to come," perfectly evoking the diminishing expectations of a generation raised in a boom, but going bust.
Tasjan's touring band, a unit tight enough to get loose in the right way, fleshes out his little tales of everyday crisis in arrangements that recall other Nashville stars with bigger dreams than one genre can hold, from the Mavericks to Lera Lynn and Rayland Baxter. Arrangements touch upon countrypolitan sounds and Twin Peaks-style reveries, all the while returning to the pop-kissed soul of old-time rock and roll. "There's a songbird singing, I'm laying on the floor," Tasjan croons; it's just another night in Anywhere, America. "In anyone's shoes, you can walk for miles," he sings. "Then one day, strap on your own and find you have to walk alone." The everyman – every person – occasionally lands in this lonely place. Aaron Lee Tasjan makes music that throws a little light on it.