David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Joseph Arthur “Redemption City” (2012)
Two-disc set available here
Singer-songwriter and painter Joseph Arthur’s newest record “Redemption City” is one of the biggest, more ambitious wonders of the new year. It’s an epic record, addressing the state of things in America and in Arthur’s mind. It canvasses the meaning of human interconnection and that feeling like something isn’t right with the world. But it’s also a record about finding solace, restoration and transcendence. “Redemption City”, even in the title itself, suggests a pouring out of passions, dreams, desires, and hopeful notions of something better around the corner. It’s a sprawling two-disc, 24-song record (divided into 12 songs each). Arthur unfairly is sometimes categorized as a far-reaching musician. Too esoteric. Too pseudo. Too keen on personal idiosyncrasy. In truth, in a day and age where idiocy is mistaken for populism, and intelligence makes one ‘suspect’, he’s more or less a victim of the times. But his tight-knit core of fans is devout, and with good reason. The value of his vision and voice speaks for itself on the new record. On the opener “Travel as Equals”, Arthur sings in prophetic verse about how to survive in a world of division and chaos: “In the dark of graveyard chatter / In the light of freedom’s call / In the heat of any matter / We travel as equals or not at all / Bloom disgust, class divide / I saw it written on the wall / The only way we can survive, we travel as equals or not at all.”
Joseph Arthur “Yer Only Job”
There’s an urgency to the song’s pacing, the soaring nature of the harmonic choruses, and the Bob Dylan-like rattling word-soup of lyrics running wild, like an artist on a mission. The song’s anthemic, jumpy rhythm fades into a scattering of barely audible spoken word, strange electronic squeaks, white noise and distortion. It’s a masterstroke to begin a record with. “Mother of Exiles” slithers with nastiness. It’s a scorching track, reminiscent of an industrialized David Bowie doing “I’m Afraid of Americans” off his 1997 album “Earthling”. It’s funky, with searing guitar accenting Arthur’s devilishly dark low moans.
At first, the intro to “Yer Only Job” feels like this is the point in the record where things will slow down. But acoustic guitar and light piano give way to some of the better, fiery verses Arthur has ever written. Yes, it’s plain spoken in some ways, but ascendent in others. It’s a song about what real freedom (a word Arthur uses in three song titles) feels like and that old Shakespearean notion that man can be ‘bound up in a nutshell’ and still count himself the ‘king of infinite space’. It’s absolute lyrical genius: “Your only job is to be free / Free to live inside a tree / Free to see the way you see / If it’s strange then let it be / Your only job is to be free / Free to laugh, free to sing, free to think / You might be king / Or you might fly or swim the sea / You have it all when you are free / Freedom puts the fear in some / And they will tell you not to run / Not to dream … / For freedom fathers no command / Has no feet, no arm or hand / Has no language, has no rhyme / Has no clockwork or the time / For freedom is its own reward / It’s own protection without a sword / Without a fight, freedom stands / All day long with phantom hands / To your heart, above the sky / Winter lips, mountains cry … / Freedom is its own reward / Distorted power, singing chord / Freedom lifts the stars in space / Freedom is an angel’s face /The planets bouncing rubber balls / Freedom bouncing off your walls / You catch and throw, and catch some more / Freedom opens every door …” The track ends with a circular and unifying sentiment similar to the album opener, that we’re all in this thing together, and that “I am you and you are me.”
This is a record made by a musician with a love for creating mood, and a joy for the written word. “I Miss the Zoo” plays like a lyrically psychedelic Lou Reed ode to the wild days of back-alleys, marijuana smoke, vagabonds stories, youthful hook-ups, innocent laughter, and simply living life, taking it all in. Arthur takes listeners on a journey of wildly poetic verbosity, with a bluesy guitar and organ playing in the background. He also plays with ambiance, building complex timbre through guitar and electronic textures in “There With Me”. If there’s something that stands out more than anything else in the first half of this two-disc record, it’s the propulsive and fevered nature of the songs. The anthemic grooves and run-on verses give this record an immediacy. Despite its gloomy assessment of the way things are, the first half of the record remains optimistic, gracefully bounding with a real pop-rock energy in a track like “No Surrender Comes For Free”. It’s a record that means something without being didactic.
The second disc is more eclectic and tempered, beginning with the surreal 11-minute warm glow of the guitar-instrumental “Surrender to the Storm”. The song sheds the intellectual submersion of the first 12 tracks and finds a home in something decidedly more tranquil and organic. That’s not to say that the record turns soft. It doesn’t. It’s as if it gets deeper into the mind of Arthur, more experimental and odd — which is why a song like “Fractures” makes perfect sense in the large concept of the record. The music begins like aquatics in reverb, blending into a soulful and self-deprecating assessment of one’s weakness. It’s a meditation on god, Arthur speaking words in the vein of William S. Burroughs, “I float like an old piece of wood on the Hudson / I may have a purpose, but it’s mysterious to me / I wait in dark corners for instructions / Get on my bike, peddle over bridges / Along rivers that wind back where I started …” The electronik marvel “Kandinsky” (using the name of famed painter Wassily Kandinsky as a jumping point) is a beautiful spiritual/artistic sprawl.
The record continues in its dense descent into wonderfully avant garde territory. The sci-fi apocalypse, “Humanity Fades”, creeps along eerily, about the ways people are connected (but not). The song imagery is of human beings with souls plugged into walls, connected by mainframes and cyberspace. It all sounds like the death of what it means to be human. Maybe that’s why the second half of the record ends with “I Am the Mississippi”, a song about being connected to something real, natural and moving. (The actual last song is a reprise of “Travel as Equals”, but “I Am the Mississippi” is the preceding track. However, it’s easy to see why Arthur would like the record to end where it began.)
“I Am the Mississipi” is a poetic stream of consciousness that feels more akin to the style of “Surrender to the Storm”, with lyrics. The river becomes the place of redemption, a baptismal of one-ness. (The song feels like it has a touch of Langston Hughes to it.) The Mississippi flows like history, connected to real human events big and small. Along the river bank, the singer speaks of chiaroscuro, a woman’s breath, slaves sold on a boat, a water of hidden bones, generations and lifetimes of people who hover in the river’s story like ghosts. He ultimately finds connection in the river and the calm contemplation of his thoughts rushing over it. Note: “Redemption City” is available from Joseph’s site for free, with the option to buy a Limited Edition vinyl. For the freeloaders, there’s MP3s and FLAC versions, but this record is so good you should shell out some bucks to keep the artist on the path to making more of this good music. (All lyrics referenced in this review are unofficial.)