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  • Ahmed Ragheb

The Musical Escapism of Daniel Knox

Should art serve as a form of escapism? Ahmed Ragheb argues that it shouldn’t - but if it has to, it should sound like the music of Daniel Knox.

Daniel Knox
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

Where do you go, dear reader, when you want to escape (work, relationship troubles, poverty, illness – you name it)? Maybe you take a vacation. Maybe you hide under your bed. Maybe you don’t go anywhere: maybe you smoke a joint, watch the entire Godfather trilogy and gorge on popcorn. I don’t know what you do or how to help you when you’re in need, all I can offer is my go-to method of escape: listening to Daniel Knox.

I had hoped to write a review (somewhat glowing) for his newest release, the haunting and beautiful I Had a Wonderful Time. However, since this website has something against publishing reviews I’ve decided to write something else – a cross between a love-letter, a short introduction to Knox’s discography and a plea to you, the reader. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the wild, piano-driven escapism that is the music of Daniel Knox.

Typically I do not believe in art as escapism. The concept, I believe, is antithetical to art itself. Art is a reflection of our world, both physical and spiritual; it is, like science, a mode of discovery and truth. To set out creating art that is escapism is, in actuality, to have nothing to do with art. It is to create just another product on the shelf – it is to create mouthwash or deodorant. (This may seem dramatic or extreme but I dare you to look around and say we do not live in extreme and dramatic times.) Now, all this being said, there are some artists that force escapism, that blindfold and kidnap you, throwing you into an entirely new world. Whether you are comfortable and at home in that new world is not their concern. Daniel Knox is one such artist. I can’t say where or when his music presides but it sure as hell is not here or now.

I first discovered Knox by chance, accidentally clicking on “Gone Old Days” while looking for Chicago’s “Old Days” (I know, I know). Apart from saving me from three minutes and thirty seconds of guilty-pleasure that I did not need, unexpectedly hearing “Gone Old Days” that night made a life-long fan of Daniel Knox out of me. I had been going through an emotionally and physically stressful ordeal at the time and was in particular need of “escape.” Knox’s simple echoing piano and soft, deep howl seemed to call out to me from another plane of existence, not necessarily a happier or brighter one, but that didn’t really matter – it wasn’t this one. I’m not sure what about the lyrics struck me so deeply right there and then – maybe their bluntness, maybe their simplicity, I really can’t say – but they continue to strike me to this day. “Our houses/Are too close together/A man can’t live in this weather.”

Knox’s available discography spans from 2007, with the release of Disaster, to 2019, with the release of I Had a Wonderful Time. With each track on each album, Knox takes you, not just to a world you’ve likely never visited but to parts of yourself you may not even be familiar with – the parts that laugh haughtily along to lines like: “Billboards tell me where to go/Billboards for my favorite show/syphilis and cancer.” Maybe it is lazy writing to say that a singer’s music is an “experience to listen to,” but I am forced to write it of Knox. His music feels so full, so resplendently visual that to describe it as anything less than experiential is to do it a disservice.

Perhaps Knox’s penchant for visual music-making comes from his love for cinema or his work as a projectionist in Chicago, or perhaps it is innate and not bred – it doesn’t really matter; the most exciting and fresh aspect of Knox’s body of work is undeniably its cinematic feel. Despite Knox’s colorful arrangements (including creative uses of everything from kazoos to cellos to handsaws), his music somehow plays out for us in black and white. On “Smartass” (off of his 2011 Evryman For Himself) the narrator takes us along on a short tour of his life. He lives, it seems, in a perennially nocturnal underworld that is pitted against him. Knox’s vocal delivery on this track gives the narrator a chillingly joyful nihilism that shines through as he croons: “What to do/When I'm through?/I got kicked in the teeth/But so can you/And she can too.” The band sways along, ignoring the ominous musings of its leader. The song has always felt to me a long-lost cousin to Bob Dylan’s hard-to-find “Night After Night.”

Knox dragged along his piano for 2018’s Chasescene (another hint to his love for film?) and delivered another statement album. The opening track, “Keturahwaltz,” sets out a tone that is hard to identify, much like the rest of the album. It is a beautiful two-and-a-half-minute instrumental that starts out remote and unnerving but twists and shifts during its limited runtime, eventually winning out over itself and ending triumphantly positive. It’s remarkable to listen to. It is incredibly indulging to listen to the album as it slithers through genres as seamlessly as it does emotions, much like its opening overture.

I’ve come to the end of the introduction and love letter sections of this article and will conclude with my short plea. It’s quite simple: I want to, as you may have guessed, ask you to listen to Daniel Knox if you have not already and escape into his music and world. This is not the lazy escapism of Marvel/DC movies or binging on Netflix shows: it is a rare escapism that challenges, confuses, and sometimes frightens you. It is an escapism that I desperately needed in my life. I can’t possibly say that you need it as I did, but I can only invite you to try the trip. ▲

Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!

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