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27 February 2019

Watching Agent Mulder busting Eighties rock moves, I’m struck by a strange sense of sincerity

David Duchovny’s moves make his project feel personal – so unpolished, so lumbersome, so unedited and exposed. 

By Kate Mossman

David Duchovny wrote a song about the time Bob Dylan did an ad for Chrysler in conjunction with the Super Bowl. The song, like a much-simplified version of “American Pie”, runs over many sad verses.

“Joker man takes off his mask,” it goes. “Reveals a car salesman at last…

Worked up quite a thirst
Watchin’ all them bubbles burst… 
Save me a place at the bar
Bobby Dylan was sellin’ cars

Singing live at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London last week, Duchovny – best known for playing Mulder in The X-Files – updated the 2015 track as if to acknowledge that a sell-out Dylan might be the least of America’s problems. “Impeach that motherfuckin’ fascist in the White House!” he cried at the end, which was a bit of a shame as far as I was concerned, because a song slagging off Dylan at length struck me as really quite original in itself.

 Duchovny also has a song about a Roman coin weighing down the pocket of a man who’s trying to get to heaven. And another about the time he went to the Sacré-Cœur and learned, to his astonishment, that when people pray in a church, they sometimes pray for other people, and not just themselves.

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Unlike part-time musician Johnny Depp, who wanted to be a rock star long before he wanted to be an actor, Duchovny only picked up the guitar in 2011, and perhaps it shows. His band, who recall a group of enthusiasts in a garage playing for the first time, produce a thick bed of seat-shaking reverb, and you wish David himself had a better voice. Whenever he steps near the front of the stage, he gets a whooped fanfare from female fans. Flat of stomach and firm of bicep, he occasionally resembles a stripper at a hen do, though he refuses to take off his shirt.

Duchovny’s songs – all of them written in his apartment, he says – have been compared to the songs of the alt-country band Wilco, but I think that this is to overlook a certain grandeur in the lyrics, which are more suited to the world of classic rock. His albums have names such as Hell or Highwater: there are probably more people here tonight than bought that record. Half the audience seem to be standing at the side of the stage – a ghostly chorus of mates from the world of show business, one or two of them brought out to tinkle a cowbell. It’s a reminder that when you are rich and famous, you can try your hand at any art form and there’ll be an audience for it – even if the audience is mainly fans of The X-Files.

Across town, Duchovny’s old compadre Gillian Anderson appears in the West End production of All About Eve to mixed reviews. According to Twitter, Mulder and Scully met the day before and took a selfie. It is good to see that both are challenging themselves in front of a small, live audience in London.

Duchovny’s on-stage movements are wondrous strange, so completely out of proportion with the meshy hum of his music. In a ban-the-bomb T-shirt, and with little stonewashed legs, he takes his cue from Eighties hair metal bands, executing a string of little star jumps, jerking up and down with his fists clenched in time with the beat, and sliding on his knees into the spotlight – David Lee Roth meets Freddie Mercury meets a VHS exercise routine.

Duchovny’s moves save the whole night for me because they make his project feel personal – so unpolished, so lumbersome, so unedited and exposed. That he genuinely knows music is beyond doubt: he recently described Van Morrison as “constantly searching for another vowel” and he wants a 16-minute gospel piece by the Shekinah Glory Ministry played at his funeral. But unlike other A-listers – Kevin Costner with his band the Modern West; Hugh Laurie and Jeff Goldblum with their high-profile turns at the piano – Duchovny’s vanity project is, at the end of the day, just too scruffy to be vain.

He ends the night, down on the floor with the crowd, mumbling into the mic, being ruffled and kissed, and risking himself among the women.

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics