Here’s a fun idea for a record: Take a veteran singer who also happens to be a lovable goofball with a dirty streak and leave him alone in a room with modern technology.
That’s the concept behind Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, the new album from Swamp Dogg, real name Jerry Williams Jr. Williams is the kind of figure who, unfortunately, seems unlikely to emerge from the modern music industry, a genre-free vagabond who never had much commercial success as a solo act despite his knack for memorable songs and bizarre album artwork. He recorded a series of zany, mostly unsuccessful soul-rock albums during the Seventies; he also wrote songs that were recorded by New Orleans R&B luminary Irma Thomas and country rabble-rouser Johnny Paycheck. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which Swamp Dogg’s “Synthetic World,” from 1970, became a regional hit, but it never did.
That lack of recognition has, paradoxically, been key to the recent rise of a Swamp Dogg lobby that touts him as one of the great lost singers of the ’70s. A Williams reissue campaign began in 2013; he was featured in Song Reader, a book of sheet music by Beck; and now he’s teamed up with Ryan Olson, from the indie synth-poppers Poliça, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. (The collaboration was actually remote.)
There are reasons to be skeptical of this combination, which seems like a stunt dreamed up for NPR listeners. But with a few exceptions — “I’ll Pretend” sounds like Phil Collins, which is a waste of Swamp Dogg’s charisma — Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune doesn’t take itself too seriously. And you can’t accuse this album of not going for it. Swamp Dogg could make another southern soul album in his sleep; that’s not what this is.
Despite the omnipresent autotune veneer, you’ll still recognize Williams. He is as lewd as ever, cracking jokes about “Chanel #69” and recording an entire song titled “Sex With Your Ex.” Even when his voice is coated in effects, it remains idiosyncratic, quirkily adenoidal.
But what’s happening around Swamp Dogg is more Roger Troutman than Muscle Shoals. On Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune‘s best songs, Olson’s synth-heavy backdrops evoke the late Eighties, landing somewhere between early Chicago house music and twitchy hip-hop. “$$$ Huntin'” remakes Swamp Dogg as a G-funk pioneer. In places, “I Love Me More” recalls both Mr. Fingers and Bell Biv Devoe. With the right remix, this could become the hit that Swamp Dogg deserved all along.