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Peter Himmelman is definitely not a material guy.
The 34-year-old singer-songwriter from Minnesota (best known to the tabloid-reading public as Bob Dylan's son-in-law) says, "I try to view the world as being constantly made manifest by the will of God, in every single blade of grass that moves in the wind, in every distant star."
That's a fairly surprising declaration for someone involved in the hedonistic, here-and-now field of secular pop music. Still, Himmelman has never cheapened his music with smug or simplistic preaching. His six solo albums are populated by flawed characters who wrestle with questions of sin and redemption on an everyday level--and they often lose the battle. A prime example is the chilling "Untitled," from 1992's Flown This Acid World. The song features a "cut-rate Aryan" cabdriver who praises Hitler's holocaust as his Jewish passenger sits listening in ashamed silence.
Himmelman's newest release, Skin, is an ambitious song cycle that fully reflects his view of life's moral struggles as it traces a single character's spiritual journey through death and rebirth.
"I just thought it would be a fun idea," Himmelman says of the album's genesis. "It's semiautobiographical, as all fiction is. The story's based on the teaching I was raised with: Judaism, of which reincarnation is a central part, although that's not often discussed, certainly not in mainstream circles. Life is sort of a trial and a game, and once you're removed from it, you see it for what it is."
The album's smarmy protagonist is named Ted, who is described in the opening cut, "Prelude," as "a wealthy guy who just happens to be fantastically handsome." While cruising for girls in his Mercedes, Ted is killed in an auto accident, and his spirit ascends into what Himmelman calls "a world of ideas or consciousness." Over the next thirteen tracks, Ted is brought back to life, but in a different form.
"It's a paradoxical situation of a spiritual being existing within a material confine," Himmelman explains. "And this is really the basis for the whole album--studying the push and pull, the dynamics of this paradox."
After being born to a teenage mother, the former Ted is raised in poverty, falls in love and struggles to make his way in the world. After achieving a semblance of happiness, he starts to lose his moral bearings once again, sinking into apathy, pride and lust.
"It's like everything in life," Himmelman suggests. "When you think you have this perfect edifice constructed and have something together, you find it's not exactly finished."
The singer and his six-member band (backing vocalist Kristin Mooney and violinist J'anna Jacoby are especially fine) use a variety of musical styles as the story evolves; of particular note are the delicate piano ballad "Clean" and the desperate rockers "They're Naked and They're Calling Me" and "Chaos and Void." When viewed as a whole, Skin doesn't break any new storytelling ground, but unlike A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life--whose themes it recalls--it does not sport a tidy ending. "I have believed in money," the character laments during "Been Set Free," the closing track, "but all I got was greed/I have believed in vengeance/But all I did was bleed/If I'd only believed in love/I could have been set free."
Himmelman's best album thus far, Skin is a declaration of faith that, like its creator, is brave enough to acknowledge everyday doubt.
"Life is a struggle," Himmelman says, "and I am by no means more successful than anybody else. In my early twenties I was trying to be a rebel, which is what a lot of the essence of rock has become...using stereotypical means to hint at rebellion. Whatever's new and shocking this year, whether it's a nose ring or a guy killing himself. None of these things impress me as being very rebellious. I don't know much about my career, but I thank God for the opportunity to do something I believe in. Every soul deserves grace, and every soul gets it. When a person has a little flash of consciousness, that momentary genius or something, whether it stays with them or not isn't important. It serves as a moral and emotional yardstick to compare everything else to. Maybe success is not necessarily the point. Maybe it's just to maintain some awareness.
"The people that you love, you should tell them," Himmelman concludes. "Don't be so presumptuous about being able to do it next week. You're on the earth for a short time, so don't take it for granted."
Peter Himmelman, with Kevin Montgomery. 9 p.m. Saturday, May 28, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $16, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.