In his 1976 obituary, American Matador Sidney Franklin was quoted as saying “If you’ve got guts, you can do anything”. That sentiment defined the life of the first Jewish bullfighter, who frequently met his obstacles head on and furiously. His life was spent wrestling with the multiple health issues spawned by his profession, financial burdens, and the fact that coming out of the closet as a gay man would end the career he worked hard to build for himself. Franklin was at all times surrounded by threat and tension, mostly in front of an audience. Amongst that perpetual tension, it’s no surprise that Eric Slick found a kindred spirit in Franklin. As the drummer for acclaimed Philadelphia indie rock outfit Dr. Dog, he’s used to colorful performances in front of large audiences despite whatever internal pressure he’s suffering through. Franklin’s life is paired with Slick’s own experiences on his aptly named Bullfighter EP, telling their stories not through the scope of the loud, frenzied arena, but through passionate and intimate string arrangements.
Bullfighter is also an exercise for Slick in wrestling with his own Jewish identity, which bares itself clearest in the almost Klezmer string arrangements prevalent throughout the EP, paired with a pop sensibility reminiscent of an Owen Pallet project. The opening eponymous track puts the vocals front and center, with Slick’s smooth voice set melancholy amongst the strings. The immediate narrative of the track fits squarely within the larger context of the album, as Slick frames the image of the charging bull as an analog to the acceptance of Judaism in his life, as well as a silhouette of Franklin. Overall, the track is starkly minimalistic, consisting primarily of strings and vocals, while the choruses are filled with white noise and dissonant crashes, making heavy use of the space available. These crashes, tucked behind the vocals, are colorful and dissonant patches that feed into the Franklin mythology, while the lyrics “weighted lovers living in despair” are personal presumably to Slick (though they could also be a reference to Franklin’s sexuality). Through this clever production, the song creates its own form of gravity, pulling the listener down to earth amongst the sharp crashing, falling amongst Slick’s words.
The density of these tracks makes it difficult to listen to recreationally, but that seems to be Slick’s intent, specifically claiming the music is “not light-hearted.” He crafts personal mythology throughout the record, finding his identity in symbolism that appears throughout the album, down to the image of the bull as his astrological sign, the Taurus. This smartly contextualizes lines like “the sacred sight of the animal” as a reckoning with himself through the eyes of the bullfighter.
“Honesty”, another track that plays with Klezmer, almost Sondheim-esque influences, finds Slick’s voice paired sonically with a violin, as he sings an almost lullaby-ish melody. Lines like “I loved her like cigarettes” paint the image of unhealthy addiction, while “take all you want from me, why not take everything?” feel absolutely hopeless against the beautiful, lush strings. The chirping synths melting in the background (courtesy of producer Michael Johnson) almost jarringly bring the song into the 21st century. The production holds your attention the same way a carousel moves – slowly, but in an overwhelmingly decadent manner. The track ends in a sort of cacophonous melange of sound, percussion, and whistling synthesizers all shifting around Slick’s hefty lyricism, all before ending rather abruptly, a curious way to cap such a powerful song.
A much eerier territory is explored on “Nothing Is Real”, with Johnson’s production steering closer to Scott Walker territory among frenzied strings. The track finds its way to a beautiful collage of strings, piano, and dense, mechanical synthesis in the chorus, while Slick croons about mortality. There’s a second mention of the restriction of limbs on the EP here, the first being “Honesty”’s “Did you notice that I can’t feel the back of my hands anymore?”, paired here with “into the light with your arms behind your back” effectively implying a lack of fixed control on the part of the narrator. It’s these little moments of lyrical clarity among the density that help the EP work so well, as they sit atop and provide a light to the beautiful but dark instrumentation.
“Fleeting Feeling” marks a shift away from the bulky production back to sparse instrumentation, but features repetitive vocal phrases that breed a manic tension that’s pervasive throughout the whole track. The timbre of Slick’s voice is paired perfectly with the strings, carefully making sure one sound was not eclipsing the other. “Fleeting Feeling” is a fitting conclusion to the EP, a final application of the sonic palette well established over the course of the EP, including the ambience that fills in some of the ample negative space. However, this track, as is the case with multiple others on the EP, just sort of ends. With such understated and simple instrumentation, one wouldn’t expect something overly bombastic to close out, but the quick, immediate ending of the tracks is a bit jarring and anti-climactic.
It takes a lot of courage to be able to write an EP so personally layered and referential, especially with such deeply emotional instrumentals. On Bullfighter, Eric Slick paints the picture of the matador, facing mortality, confusion, and pressure, and inserts his own personal narrative and struggles alongside beautiful and harrowing production and instrumentation.
- Beautiful instrumentation and vocals
- Excellent production
- Dense and layered songwriting
- Cover art by Zappa and Beefheart collaborator Cal Schenkel
- Songs so rich it can be hard to get through them
- Abrupt endings