EQUUS REVISITED: Admittedly, Jordaan Mason & the Horse Museum is a strange band.
Mason, the lead singer, often sings out of tune. His voice strains and breaks like a teenager or moves into a monotone drone like a buzz saw, wielding topics like murder, the transgendered, gravediggers, insects, sex, violence, panic, and empathy. He can be grating, or stunning — depending on your musical tastes. The first track on “Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head”, called “Bird’s Nest,” starts off with the lines, “My mouth is filled with his ovaries / I hold them here between my teeth.” And the rest of the album gets more odd — beautifully odd.
Violins, piano, accordion, acoustic guitar, a saw and found instruments rise and swell around lyrics that blur the lines between gorgeous associations, transcendent phrasing and a subconscious gone mushroom cloud . If I can compare this band to anything it would be The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, and a little Steven Jesse Bernstein. But that doesn’t quite do it justice. Bernstein had a very real mental illness and was decidedly mean-spirited in his music. And The Decemberists aren’t this revealing, sometimes hiding behind erudition and narratives of Victorian pickpockets and Turkish prostitutes. (“Divorce Lawyers'” real antecedents are “Illinois” and “Castaways and Cutouts”.)
Don’t assume this band is strange for the sake of being strange. This isn’t a put on or some sort of hipster-cool oddball pose. It’s real. Mason isn’t concocting ways to be quirky in order to appeal to the listening oddball. He’s grasping, nimble-fingered, in the dark for a new language to sing songs that ultimately make you feel. Only a band this good could come up with these lyrics from my favorite track on the record, “Avalanches”: “Between avalanches / We can find our language / Between fire blankets / We can speak our language / But if snow is like skin / It pulls away, so easy / Away from the body / What if all stripped wood is branches? / And all frozen lakes are water? / Then our bodies will be avalanches.”
That track, almost seamlessly, flows into “Racehorse: Get Married!” where Mason writes memorably complex phrases set to beautiful bits of harmonizing: “Memorize your casket / Your mother patterns / The space between your legs / I grab what’s good of you.” And if that weren’t enough, he continues with these haunting visions, set to great melody: “And you can swallow shotguns, if you want to / There are bullets in your paintings, if you want them / There are hooks to hang your kill / There are flood-boards rising upwards / Fields are fathers fled from / And bedrooms we don’t dare go to / I would like a word with you.” He ends with the line, “I’m letting all you horses go” — set to crashing high hats, and thundering drums, like a stampede.
The musical transitions and lyrical word associations make this album feel like some long hellish, but endlessly fascinating journey, with Mason serving as the listener’s own personal Virgil. It’s no wonder they list writer Jean Genet and Henry Darger’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” as influences on their MySpace page.
This isn’t an album for everyone. I’ve noticed some of my friends listen to music for different reasons. Some listen to provide a background to something else they’re doing. Others like music for dance. And some like music that makes them feel good. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I’ve never really listened for those reasons. My reason for listening to music is simple. I listen to music to find the most beautiful ways of expression. That’s it. I want songs that blossom, reveal, disturb, confuse, or caress. I want to feel I understand the beauty of the world better because of it. It’s the same thing I ask of novels and paintings. Jordaan Mason & the Horse Museum take me on a journey, sometimes to places unpleasant and dark, but always dazzling.
Some of those places can be hellish, but not without redemption. In “(S)Mother”, he writes lyrics of pure empathy: “He pulled his pants around his ankles / And he showed me all the places he went purple / ‘Cuz he held too hard his own skin / ‘Cuz no one else would touch him / … And I held him where the sickness was / And I nursed him through the night / And we stayed that way all night.”
That gorgeous song could be written about a terminally ill kid in a hospital or a sick Civil War solider. Its universality makes time-period inconsequential. It’s the intent of easing another human’s suffering. It’s that sentiment, combined with elegant phrasing and soft instrumentation that makes “(S)Mother” such a marvel.
This band has written one of the most fascinating albums of 2009. And it may be the best.
The instruments drop mid-song during the track, “The Wrong Parts (Vivian Sisters Singing),” and a lone guitar plays like some Western cinematic soundtrack underneath Mason’s voice, before exploding into a wicked crescendo of drums, saw, and bridging horns before coming back, full-circle, to an acoustic guitar with Spanish stylings.
This man is an absolute genius.
Jordaan Mason & The Horse Museum “Avalanches”
Jordaan Mason & The Horse Museum “Racehorse: Get Married!”