Concept albums are two-sided undertakings. The artist must create a satisfying musical experience and, at the same time, convey the story in his or her head to the listener. And while Donald Rubinstein's Circus Boy sometimes succeeds at the former, it's utterly befuddling at the latter.
A veritable one-man (circus?) band, Rubinstein lays out 20 musical vignettes here, most hovering around the one-minute mark and only one longer than five minutes. He jumps between acoustic piano ruminations and electronic excursions, mainly in minor keys, to convey the tale of his protagonist. The hero in question is a 1940's pianist named Jimmy Bonafide, a fictional creation, though the liner notes don't tell you. Six-foot-nine, Jewish and a poet, the persecuted Bonafide traveled with a circus, never recorded and played late-night sessions for "little animals, bearded ladies and a few admirers." This is truly an Everyman outcast saga. With such a larger-than-life backstory, it's best just to take the music on its own terms.
Rubinstein shows some flashes of inspiration here, especially in his piano solos. Since none are given much time to develop, they aren't songs so much as introspective musings that set their own separate tone. The most satisfying is the three-and-a-half-minute "Peace on Soul," a wistful slice of melancholia. The electronic pieces take Circus Boy into another, more schizophrenic direction. There's very little circus-like here, a menacing calliope sound in "Circus Road," synthesized laughter in "Hard World," but like the piano solos, Rubinstein sets a mood, then abandons it. (It's no surprise that he's also scored several films, since many pieces play out like scenes from an unmade David Lynch movie.)
Adding to the listener's confusion are five tracks consisting of the words "lies" or "suck lies" repeated over and over. Where they fit into the music or the backstory is tough to ascertain. The impression one gets from Circus Boy is that Donald Rubinstein has intentionally created a soundtrack with no movie, attempting to prod the listener into creating their own. It's an ambitious concept, but one with mixed results.