On an audacious new
double album – offered to fans as a free download, no less – the
singer-songwriter explores the intersections of music and spoken word.
BY ALLI MARSHALL
You don’t listen to a Joseph Arthur album so much as live with it. Arthur’s songs work on
many levels, revealing meaning in layers. At first they’re complex
orchestrations of loop pedals (he uses tons of Moog equipment) and captured atmosphere, and then they’re sonic paintings
of emotional topography. And then they’re songs with all the potential to
remain for years, decades, forever on mix tapes. And then they’re Arthur’s
secrets told without shame to the universe to do with what it will. We the
listeners are Arthur’s confessors, even as it turned out he’s actually giving
away our secrets.
This is all the more true for Redemption City, the Brooklyn-based
singer/songwriter’s latest release. Coming less than a year on the heels of
2011’s The Graduation Ceremony (in
final track, “Travel As Equals (Reprise)” shares the melody of Graduation‘s title track), it’s an
astonishing feat of recording. Two dozen tracks. And all available for free
download. But these aren’t mere remixes or B-sides. Not just a little something
for the fans. Redemption is a staggering body of work, nearly all spoken word pieces, and possibly
one of the most word-dense recordings even released.
Some of the tracks have been appearing in Arthur’s live shows. “Yer Only
Job” was first attached as a spoken word piece to “Almost Blue” from Graduation (check the below clip from
last summer in Asheville, NC),
while “I Miss the Zoo” (also performed on his 2011 tour while
live-painting on stage; also below is a clip from Chicago) recounts in heartbreakingly
beautiful verse his experience with addiction.
But Redemption expands beyond that. These are not just poetic musings, not just spoken word
extras. They go deeper: true poetry from an age when poets were rock stars.
When Lord Byron and Percy Shelley spend a summer dreaming of Gothic monsters
and penning fevered words. Arthur is our Byron, our romantic bard. But he’s
also fully engaged in the now, marrying verse to electro dream-pop. And he’s
not just waxing poetic; he’s calling out a flawed system – something he seems
especially passionate about. His poem “We Stand As One,” written for
those involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t appear on Redemption,
but “Travel As Equals,” which he performed on Late Show with David Letterman earlier this month, carries a
similar tone: “Bloom disgust and class divide, I saw it written on the
wall, The only way we can survive, We travel as equals or not at all.”
(It’s possible that some molecules of the late political spoken word poet Sekou
Sundiata, still bouncing around this plane, merged with Arthur’s already
over-active creative mind.)
While Redemption doesn’t float amidst dappled light and lovelorn ache of Graduation, it’s not without lush soundscapes, rumpled sheets and
dove-gray mornings. “There With Me,” words nearly obscured behind
electronic scratches and ethereal chatter, is as spiritual as it is romantic.
“Touched” moves even closer to the realm of ecstatic love. Arthur
talks about himself in second person (“you get up, have your coffee by
your canvas, throw yourself against the wall”) before launching into some
larger, braver realization of self and suffering as part of the bigger picture.
Both musically and thematically, Redemption is a work of risks and dares, an artist
not just pushing boundaries but hammering through walls. Arthur creates beauty
without playing nice. The itchy, staticy “Kandinski” (sic) is a
nightmarish art history lesson, trawling modern works for meaning, or the
unraveling of meaning. (“Kandinski is in my room. So is Edgar Allen Poe.
The shadows dream in color. And that is their final revenge.”) “I Am
looms heavy. Renowned producer Daniel Lanois (who is not involved with this
project) could have been in the room along with his penchant for reverb and
echoes and ghosts.
And there’s “Night Clothes,” a sexy, aphotic prowl through the clank
and churn of some concrete underbelly. It reminds a bit of “Radio
Euphoria” from Arthur’s 2008 EP Crazy
Rain. Not that the two songs sound the same, but there’s a revisiting of themes, which Arthur tends to from album
to album. It’s like he’s less concerned with making cool, current music and
instead is processing and evolving through his art, before our eyes (and ears).
That Redemption is digital and free speaks to this. Few artists could sell (through labels and
mainstream outlets) what is, in essence, a double album of spoken word pieces.
By deciding to go independent, Arthur freed himself from those constraints. The
11-plus minute “Surrender to the Storm,” all washes of guitar and
high, blithe vocals, is a fine example of what a musician can do when he frees
Then again, “It takes a lot of time to live in the moment,” Arthur
says in a song of the same title. With Redemption it’s clear that he’s trying his damnedest
to do just that.
Download Redemption City for free in MP3 or FLAC format at Arthur’s
website (donations are accepted, of
course, and there is also a limited edition vinyl version for sale).
Elsewhere on the BLURT
site, read our interview with Arthur in which he discusses his (literal)
intersection of music and visual art.