When I first approached The Baffler’s higher-ups about reviewing Mystified, the brand-new five-song EP released by “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, they only had one requirement to make of me. “The Baffler is indemnified from any claims of long-term psychic trauma made by you after listening to it,” they wrote, in a terse but to-the-point email.
It gave me pause. Perhaps it would be best to heed this warning, and steer clear. What if Scarborough’s new musical compositions were the bar-band equivalent of the cursed videotape from Gore Verbinski’s movie The Ring—and once I’d listened, I’d receive a phone call, dutifully informing me of pending death in seven-days time. Could I accept the possibility that this might be the way my life ended? I walked across the room and threw open the window, to ponder this possibility and reflect on the current state of the world in which I was living.
“Yep,” I thought, breathing in the humid air from outside, “I’ll take that chance.”
The world first learned about Scarborough’s new EP—which is an all-too real thing that you can buy on iTunes (“One of the best releases of the summer,” raves “Mira G 77”)—last week, when the MSNBC host and his band made a pair of appearances in New York City, all dutifully covered by Page Six, People magazine, and, because the American meritocracy has only the finest chroniclers, Forbes magazine.
As this cataract of coverage noted without fail, Scarborough’s rocking new project sported one tabloid-friendly nugget: a love song to his betrothed, fellow “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski. It was only last May that the two formally announced their coupling, ending what Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox accurately characterized as “years of rumors, gossip, and intrigue.”
To be perfectly honest, those who found their flirtatious banter and the constant “are-they-or-aren’t-they” behavior to be compelling television shouldn’t be thought of as fools. After all, Joe and Mika were stoking the same basic frisson that made Moonlighting such a hit in the late 1980’s, and it was easy enough to find cozy analogues between Scarborough and Bruce Willis’s rascally David Addison, as well as Brzezinski and Cybill Shepherd’s smarter-than-this-but-slumming Maddie Hayes. In fact, it was near the end of that show’s run that Willis, still finding his way across the straddle from television fame to feature film celebrity, briefly introduced himself to the world as a bluesman, releasing his own LP of forgettable rock dreck.
So it seems only natural, at this point, for Scarborough to follow a similar story arc. The MSNBC host has long harbored rock frontman pretensions, and had previously inflicted himself on the world of music in 2011, with “Reason To Believe,” a pop-country remembrance of the September 11 attacks. Joe is also a well-known Replacements fanboy, the sort of person who you can imagine spending hours in his den mastering the chords to “Shooting Dirty Pool” (as opposed to doing the things the Replacements actually spent hours doing, which was ingesting near-lethal doses of alcohol and drugs).
What does Joe Scarborough know of “speed-freaks?” Where on Bleecker Street are these speed-freaks?
But knowing all of that, I was completely unprepared for Mystified’s EP-opening title track, which—swear to god—sounds like a mid-career Men Without Hats song, complete with bouncy synths and affected English accents. (Click to hear it, if you dare, and ask yourself if it was all what you were expecting.) That song features a lyric—“Tell those Bleecker speed-freaks that you hang out with, I won’t be going down without a fight”—that I had to relisten to several times because I just could not believe what I was hearing. What does Joe Scarborough know of “speed-freaks?” Where on Bleecker Street are these speed-freaks? I mean, I’d read that all those Marc Jacobs stores in Greenwich Village had recently closed but I wasn’t aware that things had gone to seed quite so quickly.
Indeed, color me mystified. Scarborough’s musical world is a weird amalgam of bar-room blues, donut-glazed rhythm guitar, and occasional soul-music flourishes. As influences drift in and out, Scarborough’s lyrics run riot. “Superbad,” the EP’s second track, makes rapid, disconcerting mention of “souped up cars,” “screwed up girls,” “disco boys, cocaine, and sex shop toys,” and “living in fashion hell.” It’s like he drank a cooler full of Monster energy drink, watched The Outsiders, The Commitments, and Velvet Goldmine in rapid succession, and pulled all the disjointed references he could into one song. Needless to say, it is supremely wooze-inducing to imagine bad-boy Republican Scarborough doing any single one of these things—or in the company of any of the hackneyed bohemian souls who apparently throng his Springsteen-lite muse.
It’s crazed, and yet somehow placid. Even though the lyrical world conjured by Scarborough’s overheated transgressive imaginings is outre to the point of exhaustion, the music never ventures beyond the respectable. You can bring these disco boys and their cocaine to hotel bar at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Perhaps the newly love-crazed dayside cable host will do just that. Good luck with all of this, Davos set!
You can bring these disco boys and their cocaine to hotel bar at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The expectations I had going into this test of endurance were perhaps better met by “Time Rolls On,” and “Girl Like That,” two songs that might have fit well on the FM dial back in the Hootie-ish mid-1990’s. True, the performances here come off well enough that the pundit-rocker might consider embarking on some sort of hobbyist-rocker tour with JD & the Straight Shot, the vanity project of execrable New York Knicks owner James Dolan. (I have to admit, by the way, that Scarborough’s music is much better than Dolan’s, though of course the same might be said for the sounds produced by throwing a bucket a kitchen utensils down a flight of stairs.)
All of this leads, inevitably, to Joe’s valentine to his lady love, “Let’s Fall In Love.” Very much in contrast to the Arlen-Koehler jazz standard of the same name, Joe’s composition clearly aims for the anthemic—a rolling-tide refrain rushing in between confessional verses. “She breaks my heart with a wave of her hand,” Scarborough croons, “I’m broken, but still I believe.” I’d no idea there was this level of drama in the slow-motion Scarborough-Brzezinski mating dance. Here I thought this was a fairly breezy romance—a little flirty talk punctuated by some slap-and-tickle under the anchors’ desk. But it turns out there were real stakes involved: “days of loneliness” that Scarborough needed to end. I let the crescendoing chorus wash over me and thought about how the permanently arrested adolescents Mike Barnicle and Willie Geist had a front row seat to all of this.
According to reports, Scarborough’s first five-song outing is not intended to be his last. Somehow, between wooing Mika, presiding over his morning kaffeeklatsch, and midwifing the Trump presidency into existence, the anchor found time to pen some 400 songs, which he now intends to release to the public in monthly bursts over the next two years. “My hope is that it is something that it’s something I’ll be doing long after I’m off T.V.,” he tells Vanity Fair.
Well, as many of late capitalism’s motivational speakers might advise, you should try to monetize your side hustle. With a vault of songs and an enviable access to decent recording facilities—apologies to all those Bleecker speed freaks still recording at home!—Scarborough is well situated to enter the gig economy should his main source of income ever go south. Perhaps Joe is actually in better shape than his cable news peers, who might want to consider this five-song EP as something of a canary in their coal mine. As Joe sings to Mika, “Look at the signs, these are terrible times.” Listening to the tortured-yet-bouncy testimony of Mystified, I believe.