Joseph Arthur’s The Ballad of Boogie Christ (out June 11 on his Lonely Astronaut label) opens with “Currency of Love,” which is Arthur like we rarely hear him. Singing forcefully, almost theatrically, pushing at the limits of his voice. He’s backed by horns and a bouncing piano, tapping (awesomely) the spirit of Randy Newman.
“Saint of Impossible Causes” is a return to form. The poetic laundry list, the train of thought word-play set to a jangling melody split here and there by a raga that drifts across the headphones as if threaded through the listener’s mind. Here, instruments layer and the roll call of Arthur’s saints — “I need the saint of longing, I need the saint of will, I need the saint of killers too afraid to kill” —collage in textures and juxtapositions much like the canvases he paints.
The album’s title track begins with the bold assertion that “Christ would wear cowboy boots, Christ would have sex, Christ would eat pizza and cut black jack decks.” It’s a song that could easily jump the proverbial shark. It’s both insouciant and over the top and yet there’s a control within the chaos. Arthur could wink, but he doesn’t. He sings each verse with slow and seductive conviction, his voice low and unhurried. In the background, what begins as a psychedelic-tinged waltz builds in intensity with organ, horns, electronics, and a chorus that seems to rise from the din of a party. Ultimately, it is a party. Not a statement against Christianity, but a celebration of humanity in all of its weird, colorful imperfection. Hard not to get behind that, even if the song’s title leans toward pretension.
Maybe pretension isn’t the right word. Audacity is more like it, because with this song, Arthur makes Christ in his own image (“Christ would be savage, but Christ would be true. He’d say if you want him then look inside you”), which feel a bit like breaking the rules. Which is what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do. And here it’s smart and bold and heart-on-sleeve. It’s also the passion project of an artist who may feel like he’s yet to receive the recognition he deserves. After all, Arthur has been at it for a long time. He was discovered by Peter Gabriel in ’96. He’s put out 10 studio albums and 11 EPs. And he paints and writes and makes videos. He’s sung a duet with Jimmy Fallon. Michael Stipe has covered his music. He’s in RNDM, a collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament. Which is to say, Arthur is a known entity, but he’s not a limo-riding, entourage-having super-star.
And that’s probably a blessing. That’s why he can put out The Ballad of Boogie Christ, and that’s also why he can hold a Pledge Campaign to pay down studio debt incurred in making the album and get that fundraiser 150-percent funded with weeks to spare. Arthur’s fans follow him, wherever the muse may lead. That kind of freedom, to create and express, is rare.
“Ballad of Boogie Christ” is followed by “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water.” The two songs could be the opposite faces of the same coin, with the second full of the doubt and anguish that the first steamrolls in its soulful swagger. But “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water” is soulful, too, in its quiet reflection and raw honesty. “Forgive me now my useless thunder when I was such a dynamo,” Arthur sings. “For I am here, and I am humble. I know not which way to go.” The songs dissolves to a stripped a capella for just a moment. It’s a rare glimpse behind the curtain of Arthur’s lavish maelstrom and production.
“I Miss the Zoo” is reprised here, though in a different form from last year’s Redemption City. There’s something about that song that is always a little hard to hear. It’s Arthur’s spoken word revisiting of his own addiction. Though he’s been sober for about a decade now, there’s something in the lush visuals, the palpable longing wafting through the dark-but-lovely words that suggests the songwriter feels compelled to revisit the wreckage. On Boogie, the song is more up-front — voice, guitar and piano — less buried under reverb. But still. The ache is there.
“Still Life Honey Rose” also thrums a poignant note, with Arthur’s falsetto well-matched with electronics and guitar melodies. That song recalls the melancholy-but-rhythmic turn of 2011’s The Graduation Ceremony.
While that ache, that connection to lost love and human tumult, is something Arthur is skilled at plumbing, his rockers trade wistfulness for flirtatious saunter. “It’s OK to Be Young/Gone,” in its last minute, reminds of the “You’re a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty girl” break in the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” And up-beat “Black Flowers,” with its brisk hand-drums and brassy horn hits is part block party and part ‘60s revival.
Somewhere between the somber and the swagger are the expansive and loosely-narrative “King of Cleveland” and “Famous Friends Along the Coast,” which both play like cinematic vignettes. Rich with imagery, resonance and hooks, they feel less esoteric than the rest of the album. But these songs are relatable and immediate, and lend a groundedness to the 12-track collection.
The Ballad of Boogie Christ wraps with the seven-plus minute “All the Old Heroes,” which was released in advance as a video. It’s worth seeking out: It’s long and a bit of a saga. But also wonderfully rendered. The video is a photo montage of heroes which, in the first seconds, might have you thinking 1) No one tells me who my heroes are and 2) There aren’t enough for a seven-plus minute song. By minute two, you’ll start to catch on. Joey Ramone, Shirley Temple, Superman, Gandhi, Twiggy, Dukes of Hazzard, Bob Marley, Captain Kangaroo. They’re all there. They flash by and you think something like, “I get it. Heroes are those people who show us how to really go for it.”
And that’s exactly what Arthur is doing with The Ballad of Boogie Christ. Going for it.
DOWNLOAD: “Saint of Impossible Causes,” “Ballad of Boogie Christ,” “All the Old Heroes”