I just finished reading The Night Circus, which is a tale of magic and circus set in Victorian England. The best part of the novel is the perfect mood it captures, with curiosity being the only guide in a world that fluctuates between joy, terror, and confusion. Curtis Eller’s American Circus‘s How to Make It In Hollywood draws off that same time period for musical, lyrical and visual inspiration, resulting in an album that is as mysterious, dirty, magical, scruffy, distinctive, oft foreboding, and occasionally whimsical as the circus itself.
Eller plays the banjo, and so the songs all have a plucky, jaunty feel that only a banjo can give. On top of that base, there’s everything from mournful ballads to proto-rock’n’roll jaunts to old-timey folk tunes to things that sound like they fell right off the back of a circus. The sense of theatricality that is so prevalent in the circus holds together songs as disparate as the New Orleans-esque “Butcherman” and the forlorn “Three More Minutes with Elvis”; the impressive arrangements make both of those tunes sound excellent. The ominous backwater stomp of “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon” is wholly different again; it’s just as impressive musically.
Eller isn’t a chameleon so much as he is an expert storyteller, matching moods and lyrics impeccably. If “Busby Berkeley Funeral” needs to sound like a jubilation after a slight into pondering death, the music can fit that. Eller’s strong voice is the guide through this wildly diverse album, the ringmaster in a circus of sounds that are here one minute and gone the next. Whether it’s 1950s pop or 1850s folk lament, Eller knows how to fit it into the amalgam. If you’re interested in upbeat folk like Jonas Friddle’s, or theatrical work like The Decemberists (but way more fun than they ever were), you’ll be thrilled to hear Curtis Eller’s How to Make It In Hollywood.