Review: Eef Barzelay leads Clem Snide to serene devastation

Clem Snide, “Forever Just Beyond” (Ramseur/Thirty Tigers)

There have been many iterations of Clem Snide over the years but by now it’s turned into a personal alias for Eef Barzelay. “Forever Just Beyond” shows him and his current ensemble at their most quietly devastating.

Produced by Scott Avett, who also performs and helped write some of the material, the predominantly acoustic album contains soothing melodies and gentle interpretations tackling weighty subjects like life, death and transcendence.

Barzelay and Avett are a great creative match with the help of an ace backing group, and the songs’ philosophical musings make for keenly melodic observations on the circumstances of our fleeting lives.

Like Steely Dan, the Clem Snide moniker is also taken from the William S. Burroughs oeuvre and refers to a recurring character who also stars as a private eye. It’s an apt analogy for Barzelay’s own inquisitiveness.

Album opener “Roger Ebert” centers on some of the movie critic’s final words — “It’s all an elaborate hoax” — and the passage from this life into whatever comes next. The title track, one of the album’s most meticulous, attempts to define the divine as something outside the confines of faith and reason: “God is simply that which lies forever just beyond the limit of what we already seem to know.”

“The True Shape Your Heart” is beautifully but heartbrokenly romantic and here Barzelay sounds halfway between Ron Sexsmith and Nick Cave. “Ballad of Eef Barzelay” reinforces the wastefulness and futility of suicide, while “Emily” provides a tough recipe for changing the world — start with yourself and “be more kind and brave in the face of it all.”

Closer “Some Ghost,” one of the Avett co-writes, is another atmospheric musical gem with lyrics trying to make sense of the voices trapped in our head and point to a way out.

The Israeli-born, Nashville-based Barzelay describes his past decade as a “rollercoaster of deep despair and amazing opportunities,” including divorce, bankruptcy and a fan’s generous donation. With “Forever Just Beyond,” Barzelay shows that he’s made the most of this chance he got.

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