There’s a brief moment near the close of This Is My Suitcase’s third and final album — the long-running local art-rock crew is set to play its farewell show at Strongwater on Saturday, Dec. 7 — where singer Joseph Anthony Camerlengo allows a bit of optimism to creep in, howling “All we’ve got is time…”
Of course, both band and frontman come crashing back to Earth almost immediately when he follows with “at least until we die,” his words hitting with the bracing force of a slap to the face.
It’s a fitting signoff for a band that has spent the better part of 10 years exploring life’s glorious highs (Suitcase’s 2005 debut, Missent to Thailand, doubled as a delirious ode to love) and its crushing lows (on The Keys to Cat Heaven, released in 2009, a messy breakup left Camerlengo seeking solace in Hell). The group’s latest opus, In the Wake of Atrophy: A Poignant Album for Heartsick Humans, which could pass for the working title of Dave Eggers’ next novel, falls squarely in the latter category, with Camerlengo still reeling in the wake of a busted relationship.
On “Forty Times,” the singer buries a box “with our love inside,” while a love potion turns poisonous on the bruising “With Love from London, Missent to Thailand.” Then on “To Hell If I Know,” Camerlengo bemoans his ex for ruining The Beach Boys for him, which might be the greatest crime of all.
Though the lyrics are generally downcast, Suitcase’s songs remain almost universally upbeat, driven by jaunty piano, propulsive drums and Camerlengo’s cracked falsetto, which somehow manages to convey heartache, hope, desperation, uncertainty and strength all at once. Collectively it’s the sound of a band adopting a brave face and playing on as the ship lurches and begins its steady descent to the ocean floor.
This kinetic musical backdrop is in many ways a reflection of Camerlengo’s outsized personality. In conversation he comes across as undeniably friendly, a little scattered and extremely extroverted, and there are times words flow from him as effortlessly as water surging forth from a busted dam.
Here he is, for one, offering his thoughts on the band’s final show: “But once we're up there and we're drinking and our friends are there and [bandmate] Mary Lynn [Gloeckle] is crying for the entire show because she's so sad we're breaking up and she's like, ‘I'm going to cry the entire time,’ it's bound to lead to something and I don't know if it will be bad or good and I don't know if I'll play everything nice and normal and smile and wave goodbye or if we'll be banned from Strongwater when everything is said and done.”
While the band has been together nearly a decade, the end still feels like it has come too soon. Camerlengo readily admits In the Wake of Atrophy is the group’s best work — and quite possibly, he said, the best thing he’s ever recorded (the singer has stepped out as a solo performer and played with Van Dale in more recent years) — but he also, like George Costanza exiting a business meeting, hopes to leave on a high note.
“A lot of local bands tend to fizzle out,” he said. “I'll ask people about their band and they'll be like, ‘Oh, I don't know. We haven't done anything in two years,’ and I don't want that fate for This Is My Suitcase.
“I met a majority of my good friends because of this band and the shows we've played and the things we've done together. Our story has been so good and unique, and we've always worked so hard on everything we’ve done. It seems like a good time to release the album, play this last show and just kind of let things be. That's how I want to end the band. That seems like the best story.”