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While recording, Common asked each member to create intensity with emotion rather than volume and to leave space for one another in the arrangements. "We wanted it to feel, as much as possible, like a real band of human beings playing in a wooden room," he explains. "We wanted it to sound like real people conversing with one another, musically, like having a conversation."
They succeeded, because the first thing you notice about Beautiful Empty is its spaciousness: The voices of Common and DeNicola blend together seamlessly and never strain to compete with one other, much less with the other instruments. On the song "Same Scar," for example, moaning cello lines harmonize gracefully with an accordion as it inhales and exhales gently, weaving an impressively elegant backdrop.
But Common casually deflects any praise for the recording. "When an architect drives by a building that he's designed, he didn't build a goddamn thing in that building, and yet he feels pride," he muses. "And that's how I feel about this record. I mean, I did build some things — I played piano and sang and played guitar. But a huge amount of what makes this record sound amazing, I didn't touch it."
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Perhaps. But he is responsible for the songs, and this batch is among the best he's written thus far. The lyrics on Beautiful Empty are every bit as affecting as the instrumentation, and as varied. On "Wide Open World," when Common sings the lines "Liars love leavers and losers leave lovers," his turn of phrase is as clever as it is poignant. On "My Neighborhood," as he relates the heartache and struggles of his neighbors, he's completely straightforward; on "The Man Who Could," he paints vivid pictures as he sets the scene of "the beautiful ones who smoke along the banister, watching the mating dance swirl around you down below."
From the songs to the sound to the album art — rumpled bedding arranged to resemble a landscape — and the promotional photos, Common clearly put a great deal of thought into every aspect of this project, which he readily admits. "There are some interesting fallacies that are viewed as truths in indie music," Common says. "One is the picture of the naive, unaware, brilliant savant, a lonely songwriter who just sort of bumps into brilliant lyrics — I just don't fully buy that. Another is this concept that you have to be one or more of the following: broke, suffering, alone, bereft of any opportunities other than music — like 'I have to make music because it's all that I have and all that I am.' I think that's one way to do it, but there are so many other ways to make valid art."
With a band of talented mofos, for example.
No matter where the road leads from here, you can bet that art will continue to be Common's driving force — whether he likes it or not. "Whenever I think about the next thing in my life, it always involves moving and then some other form of creativity," he concludes. "I'm too addicted to creating for me to give that up. I will not give up that drug. It's been in my bloodstream for so long now that I don't think I would have any chance of being happy if I wasn't directly connected to creating."