Don't Be a Stranger appeared after a difficult period for the eternally gloomy Mark Eitzel -- following the release of American Music Club's fine but overlooked 2008 album The Golden Age, the band fell apart, presumably for the last time, and after Eitzel's solo album Klamath was (barely) released in 2009, little was heard from him until the spring of 2011, when it was revealed he'd suffered a severe heart attack. So the mere fact that Eitzel is alive, well, and recording is encouraging news, and though Don't Be a Stranger is a few steps short of a triumphant return to form, it's easily Eitzel's strongest solo effort since 2001's The Invisible Man. Time has begun working some changes on Eitzel's voice, smoothing out the grain of his instrument, easing up on its physical force, and suggesting a bit less control on numbers like "The Bill Is Due," "I Love You But You're Dead," and "Nowhere to Run." But the intelligence of his phrasing is as impressive as ever, and his ability to inhabit his lyrics is complete. Eitzel's songwriting remains his greatest strength, and if his last few solo efforts were unfortunately inconsistent, this shows the excellence of the material on The Golden Age was no fluke (and he revives one song from that set, "All My Love," found here in a jazzier piano-based arrangement). Eitzel's witty but pointed self-loathing takes center stage on "Why Are You with Me" and "Oh Mercy," while his portraits of lives in the balance on "You're Waiting," "Lament for Bobo the Clown," and "Nowhere to Run" confirm he hasn't lost his vision, or his flinty but sincere compassion. And fans put off by Eitzel's (sometimes if not always successful) experiments with electronics will be encouraged by the warm, organic sound of this material, which suggests the spare, eloquent surfaces of AMC's more subdued work. (Vudi even pops up on one track.) Emotionally powerful, darkly beautiful, and troubling yet genuine at the same time, Don't Be a Stranger is the sort of album only Mark Eitzel could make, and if it's not always as strong and as focused as one might hope, it honors his muse better than he has on his own in some time, and shows this master songwriter still has some worthy stories left to tell.