As a black cat slinks around Allen's chair, he describes the period in his life that gave rise to the songs on the album. "I was real angry with myself," he says. "I thought, I'm getting older, not getting my shit together, and I'm going to end up a 45-year-old imp on Decatur Street, losing my teeth, getting in fights, picking up 22-year-old strippers."
Instead of living out that nightmare, he wrote songs about what it feels like to be heading for one.
Allen, 34, formed The Happy Talk Band in 2001, after a solo slot opening for blues poet John Sinclair at the Dragon's Den. Nervous about the gig, he popped a Valium, drank three whiskeys, and played on a borrowed guitar from Morning 40 Federation's Bailey Smith. "I remember it was a really hot mic, and I kept shocking myself," he says. "But I played well in a Valium-drunk-getting-shocked kind of way." After his set, Smith suggested they start a band together. Boozy, druggy and gritty, The Happy Talk Band provided the perfect soundtrack to the downtown dive bars where hipsters lose their way.
After two years of gigs solidified its lineup (Allen, Smith, drummer Andy Harris, and bassist Michael Lenore), The Happy Talk Band booked time at the Ninth Ward Pickin' Parlor, a recording studio run by local banjo guru Mike West. With West's raw production, the songs on Total Death Benefit come off as a string of lo-fi twangers, the Ninth Ward's answer to The Velvet Underground & Nico. Allen sings the catchy verses with his signature whiskey-throated rasp, and Smith's haunting backups echo on urgent choruses. Songs such as "Ash Wednesday" spell out the circumstances of Allen's own brand of existential blues, highlighting New Orleans' unique interplay with self-destruction and Catholicism. "I lost my God/I lost my sense of clarity," he laments on "Forget-Me-Not." "Now I'm taking a vacation on the third floor of Charity."
The album's centerpiece is a seven-minute number titled "Nativity." The slow-burning, minor-key epic echoes images from Allen's childhood, when his Catholic mother would bring out an antique German Nativity scene at Christmastime. "We would each unwrap one figurine, and set it up," he recalls. "That was our little tradition." In Allen's own version of the Nativity, Jesus struggles to free himself from his virgin mother's clutches, Mary sits knitting scarves and worrying herself mad, and Joseph, avoiding the birth of a bastard son, runs off to do cocaine with a hooker.
Most of the songs on Total Death Benefit mention cocaine, heroin or at least hard liquor, and Allen makes no attempt to hide his acquaintance with the dangerous vices common to bar band musicians. "I've had some bad role models in New Orleans," he says. "You know the type. Once they were a good photographer, writer or painter, and now they're just a f--king stinky drunk who's eighty-sixed from half the bars on Decatur.
"Luckily, I'm not there now," he adds, glancing at his old apartment. "I gave up cocaine for Lent," he says, " and I haven't gone back since." But his half-nervous, crooked-toothed smile says there may be a bad habit or two left in him. "I just drink now," he adds, taking a long drag on a cigarette. "Of course, the bars have always depressed me, but now they thoroughly depress me." Heartbreak is the other dominant theme on Total Death Benefit. It turns out Allen's dark period fell after his girlfriend left him, and before she came back. The three things he misses most on "I'm Not Surprised" are cocaine, whiskey, and "you," a lost love. For the chorus, Allen enlists children to sing about the three voids, balancing out the dark mood with silly delirium. In fact, the whole album comes off with half a snicker, and that's intentional. "It's definitely not supposed to be this heavy, woe is me, I suffer so much thing," he says. "I wanted a sense of humor with it at the same time. Because ultimately, it's just another punch line, and I'm sure God is laughing."