Al Riggs: Themselves Album Review

Al Riggs has been one of the busiest songwriters in their home state of North Carolina for most of a decade. Not yet 30, the songwriter has steadily churned out fuzzy, self-produced songs, digging into the work of lo-fi heroes and speaking openly about their life with autism. After focusing on guitar-led twang with last year’s I Got a Big Electric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I SleepRiggs’ latest album, Themselves, is a definitive pivot in both presentation—according to a press release, it will be their final album under the name—and subject matter. “The trans allegories are through the roof,” Riggs said in a statement, and Themselves coheres these narratives into a series of ghost stories and monuments.

Trading in themes of death and rebirth, Themselves presents Riggs at a crossroads, sending off their former selves in a tide of creative cross-references. As if self-soothing for the discomfort that comes with any kind of transition, Riggs pads out Themselves with cushy synths and restless electronic rhythms. Riggs’ voice wavers as they mean through the record, their low warble tumbling over lines about waiting, what-ifs, and wanting. Their sense of wariness is palpable.

Themselves‘ track titles read like the guest list of an unusual dinner party, attended by dead artists: Moomin creator Tove Jansson, monologist Spalding Gray, Peanuts mastermind Charles Schulz, musician Richard Swiftand American Splendor originator Harvey Pekar are among the invitees. Even the cover art bears a wink: Its artist, Box Brown, has penned stirring graphic novels about the singular lives of cult heroes like Andy Kaufman and André the Giant. Like Olivia Liang’s The Lonely CityRiggs lovingly invokes this array of free spirits to relate to their own journey of individual self-discovery, spiraling into their own interior maps.

In “National Freedom Christmas (For R. Swift),” producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift, who died unexpectedly at 41 in 2018, becomes Riggs’ outlet for a prospective redemption. In the surreal scenery changes of “Halloween for Norma Tanega,” the titular California singer-songwriter gets a nod, too, and the connection feels loose but funny: Tanega’s tune “You’re Dead” found a new life through the comedy What We Do in the Shadows, another set of transition-related adventures about vampires adapting to modern life on Staten Island. In Riggs’ world, the underdogs end up on top, whether they’re artists establishing their distinctive styles or yearning lovers seeking affirmation.

Riggs makes use of the year 1987—several years before their birth—as another narrative pillar, opening Themselves in “Chelsea, 1987,” a cradle of New York’s gay community, a mile from where the grassroots political group ACT UP was born the same year. Across the album, plans are set, people disappear, conflicts remain at loose ends. But Riggs reaches a breakthrough with “The Bardo, 1987,” laying their vulnerability plain with the line “Death never gets me/It’s the rebuilding that’s tough.”