Singer-songwriter Harlan T. Bobo is the personification of amused self-doubt. "Bobo," he grumbles, meditating on his own nom de plume. "It's such a perfect name for me. It translates directly from Spanish as 'stupid,' and, if you put my name into a translator, it comes out Harlan T. Stupid.
"My family thinks I'm ashamed of them because I don't use my real name," he adds, coughing up a chuckle.
Bobo is currently in a tight spot. This week, the lean, bearded troubadour launches I'm Your Man, his long-awaited sophomore recording as a solo artist, released on the local Goner Records label. But in spite of any brilliance it may contain, the disc is bound to disappoint Bobo's fans. And worse: Bobo knows it. He's not sure if he knows how to feel about it.
"It's like when I come off stage after a show and people want to talk to me," Bobo mumbles. "Prepare to be let down, I always say."
It's not that I'm Your Man isn't an extraordinary effort, filled with aching, insightful songs about misfit affections, sex, and longing. It is, and in that regard it's every bit the equal of Bobo's self-released debut, 2005's Too Much Love (later reissued on Goner), an unexpected cause célèbre within the local music scene. Too Much Love took listeners by surprise, charming them with the quirky sweetness, eclectic musicianship, and the clownish, hangdog persona of the singer in question.
Too Much Love was built like a high school term paper, with its thesis written boldly in the first lyric. The opening track, "It's Only Love," channels the barroom melancholy of Tom Waits, as Bobo croons — over gently strummed guitar chords — that our most celebrated emotion is as harmlessly mysterious as a clear, blue sky. Every other song on Too Much Love tears that theory apart with personal stories chronicling the high and low points of one man's magnificent obsession, as well as the laugh-till-you-cry quandaries of a modern-day Don Quixote looking for one pure thing to hold onto.
Before Too Much Love, Bobo was a perennial sideman, playing bass with Midtown musician Nick Ray (aka Nick Diablo) in the hard-rocking band Viva L'American Death Ray Music. Not even the best-connected fan of Memphis music could have ever seen Too Much Love coming. And certainly, nobody could have expected that the quietly ubiquitous bassman's humble, homemade CD would become an instant local classic. The song "Left Your Door Unlocked" was voted song of the week on National Public Radio's Open Mic. Critics across the country raved.
"Nothing anybody says about my songs changes the way I feel about them," Bobo says, mildly complaining about the popularity of Too Much Love and "Left Your Door Unlocked" in particular.
"When I listen to those songs [on Too Much Love] it doesn't sound like me," he says. "My voice sounds all affected and weird. On I'm Your Man, I wanted to make sure that I was using my natural voice.
"I remember walking into a place and hearing a song playing and thinking, man, the Reigning Sound have really lost their touch," he says. "And then I realized I was listening to myself." With this revelation, Bobo crashes his head helplessly into the palm of his hand.
I'm Your Man might be the most anticipated album release on the local music scene in years, and as Bobo has already explained, too much love can be a dangerous and confusing thing.
Hopefully, Bobo's fans will give I'm Your Man more than one spin, because second and third listens reveal treasures easily lost by an immediate comparison to Bobo's breakthrough debut. Borrowing a number of tricks from Leonard Cohen's song bag, Bobo has given himself the impossible task of exploring complex themes in simple, emotionally charged terms. With subtle nods to artists as dissimilar as Nick Cave, Dan Penn, and Hank Williams, I'm Your Man catalogues the comforting self-deceptions of the defeated, even as it toys with larger themes.
If the entire collection could be compared to a single recording, it would be George Jones' "The Grand Tour." Even in moments of whimsy, it can be that devastating.
"Pragmatic Woman," the disc's most thoughtful and beautifully realized song, toys with the idealization of a love interest while essaying the personal failures that necessitate such idealized visions. In Bobo's world, one hand on the clock is always waving hello while the other waves goodbye, and clarity only comes in the space between the ticks. Even a bouncy tune about whether or not to have children turns into something murkier.
"Once we learn we are crafty enough to avoid the responsibilities that come with our pleasures — birth control — we create a destructive mind set," he says. "It's the same kind of thinking that allows us to deplete our natural resources and blow people up for theirs."
Sitting at Otherlands in Midtown and sipping an espresso, Bobo appears to be impossibly tired. His voice is phlegmy and shattered, and his usually bright eyes are dull. His limited success has brought opportunities that weigh on him like a curse. He's been working what he describes as 40-hour days scoring music for adult reality shows such as Showtime's Sexual Healing. Listening to him explore conflicted emotions about the TV gig and the roots of his fatigue, it's hard to imagine that this is the man known for producing energetic, theatrical performances.
"If you come to hear Death Ray, you can be pretty sure that Nick is going to shake your ass," Bobo says, trying to explain why he's inclined to wear angel wings on stage and turn every performance into a one-act play. "My songs don't really get asses shaking, so I want to give people some other reason to get excited."
Bobo's theatrics predate his solo career. If the reluctant raconteur can be believed, he once spent time in a California halfway house, where he was occasionally allowed out at night to play pedal steel in a band called Minnie Pearl Necklace, an alt-country extravaganza fronted by a drag queen.
Before coming to Memphis, Bobo also spent time playing with honky-tonk torchbearer Johnny Dilks. In the mid-'90s, Bobo emceed shows for a traditional burlesque troupe called Memphis Confidential, with nothing but a concertina and a world-weary take on some old dirty jokes.
"One time somebody told me that one of my songs saved their marriage," Bobo says with a shrug, unable to fully understand how his music might accomplish that task. "That made me feel pretty good."
Bobo recalls a time when a big, black car suddenly cut him off while he was walking, and the driver threw a half-eaten apple at him.
"I was already running away when I heard somebody call, 'Harlan T. Bobo, I'm a big fan.' Every time I see that guy now he throws a half-eaten apple at me," Bobo says. "It makes my day every time."
Half-eaten apples? Love? Stupidity? Perfection? Perversion? The self-betrayal of a man who throws away his cash and his love on pretty foolish things? Is it any wonder that Bobo is planning to turn the Hi-Tone Café's stage into a plastic representation of the Garden of Eden for his CD-release party?
"I've been going to thrift stores for months buying fake flowers, and now I know why grandmothers' houses smell that way," he says, reflecting on the artificial blossoms currently infecting his environment. "It's really awful."
Harlan T. Bobo will celebrate the release of I'm Your Man with a performance at the Hi-Tone Café on Saturday, July 21st. The club opens at 9 p.m. Admission is $5.