Jeremy Messersmith has a knack for coming up with depressing album titles.
From structural organ defects (“Heart Murmurs”) to love from 6 feet under (“The Reluctant Graveyard”), the singer-songwriter and Southwest Minneapolis resident may have outdone himself with his latest full-length record, “Late Stage Capitalism.”
“I thought it was a funny thing to title a record. And making it sound like a boring economics textbook is a surefire way to sell records,” he said.
The album serves as a companion piece to “11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele,” a 15-minute record he put out last year. Like the name suggests, the “micro-folk” album is literally all kitties (“Everybody Gets a Kitten”), rainbows (“We Can Make Our Dreams Come True”) and magic (“Everything is Magical”), paired with the occasional thinly veiled lesson (“We All Do Better When We All Do Better”).
On “Late Stage Capitalism,” the pixie dust has been fracked from beneath picturesque mountain ranges, copyrighted and sold as breakfast cereal. Like the album cover, which has Messersmith’s blank, goggle-clad face juxtaposed with a smiley emoticon, these songs come with a heavy dose of glitter to cover up the real story underneath.
“I wanted everything to have a bit of schmaltzy gloss where all the songs have been carefully touched, like when you see restaurant commercials on television,” he said.
“Late Stage Capitalism” pairs sweeping 1960s and ’70s rock-pop production with lyrics examining everything from the modern workweek to the fate of mankind, which result in Messersmith’s loftiest songwriting yet.
“We’re off to an awful start” begins the chorus of intro track and lead single, “Purple Hearts,” a sort of anti-pop song with a gleeful orchestral backdrop.
“‘Purple Hearts’ is a song about two people on opposite sides of a cultural divide who are experiencing the loneliness and disconnection of modern society in the form of the worst first date of all time,” Messersmith said when it was released in mid-February.
The first half of the album has a narrative arc following a character, from a mariachi-tinged teenage rebellion-turned-acquiescence (“All the Cool Girls”) to a romance out of his league and understanding (“Postmodern Girl”). The latter features a French monologue performed by Charlotte Savary whose insults the singer is blissfully incapable of translating.
“Late Stage Capitalism” pivots about halfway through with “Happy,” whose central character is in the throes of capitalism while clicking on pop-up ads and dreaming of a world without need (“All that I thought was free / Everything that I own owns a piece of me”).
While it’s easy to get caught up in Messersmith and his band’s enchanting arrangements — they are intentionally so — “Late Stage Capitalism” will eventually give pause.
“Fast Times in Minnesota” paints a picture of a woman and her Midwestern home — “uff das and ya, you betchas” and all — gradually speeding up while she drives drunk on Interstate 55.
The next track, the tongue-in-cheek “Jim Bakker,” skewers the real-life televangelist, who went to college in Minneapolis at the same university as Messersmith and whose excessive lifestyle — and fraud — have made him infamous (“So lay your money down like you know you should / Daddy needs a private jet”).
“I’ve always wanted to write a song about televangelists because they’re such oddities,” he said. “They’re fascinating characters to watch.”
“Late Stage Capitalism” dramatically scales back the glitz, stripping down to the beautiful “Fireflower,” a kind of ’60s folk duo with backing vocals from locals John Mark Nelson and Kara Laudon, dramatic piano lines and steel guitar from Joe Savage.
“It’s framed a little more like musical honesty. There’s less sort of bells and whistles,” he said. “That’s the point of the record where we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Then there’s “Once You Get to Know Us.” Messersmith said he was inspired to write the song after trying to buy a house — he eventually bought one in Richfield, a stone’s throw from the city limits — and reading marketing lingo like “cozy” and “rustic,” words meant to sell bad houses.
On the song, the record’s longest, Messersmith sings as an intergalactic real estate selling the planet — and all of its owners’ flaws — to aliens. Zoomed as far out as Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” photo, it lays bare that humans, “genocidal maniacs” among us, have made “sadly irreversible” mistakes destroying earth — but, don’t worry, some of us are nice.
“I’m sure a lot of horrible people were great once you get to know them,” he said.
“Late Stage Capitalism” ends with “No Superheroes in Cleveland,” a post-apocalyptic folk tale from flyover country. Its location is inspired by Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, a Cleveland native whose creation saves Metropolis (aka New York), and, along with every superhero these days, has moved to the land of Hollywood to make movies.
“How many times is New York going to be blown up? I’d much rather see a superhero based out of Ames, Iowa,” he said.
The result is a stirring, sarcastic batch of songs with heady, unabashed arrangements reminiscent of Paul McCartney and Semisonic.
Messersmith will play songs from “Late Stage Capitalism” at First Avenue’s mainroom on Friday, March 30. The 18-plus show will open with Minneapolis garage rocker Monica LaPlante, a former songwriting student of Messersmith.
He said he’ll bring back some songs from his St. Paul-themed record, 2009’s “The Silver City.”
“I think it’s going to be goofy and crazy and fun,” he said.
“Late Stage Capitalism” is out now via Glassnote Records.