The Upshot: Deep, brooding and magical, the album s simply one of the finest artistic statements of 2016.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston has produced something timeless with his debut solo album The Starless Room, from Clouds Hill Records, based in Hamburg, Germany. The starkness of Johnston’s photo gracing the cover revealing nothing but the man himself, is a wonderful metaphor for the album as a whole. Here, he opens his heart and lets it flow like never before. This is a sweeping culmination of the musical moments we’ve heard punctuated throughout his career—which includes work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and, currently, PJ Harvey—as well as a fascinating new step into an artistic space that he’s finally ready to inhabit.
Like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or Mick Harvey with his amazing Serge Gainsbourg records, James Johnston has arrived at a level of song-smithery and musicianship that is every bit on par with those peers. Take, for example, the song “St. Martha’s” that I fell in love with on his record store debut from earlier this year. This is a tune that pays homage to the great ballads of 1950s America. Johnston, with his piano, a subtle string arrangement, and some very muted drums, lets the song build to a tour de force of longing and regret. Label founder and producer Johann Scheerer must also be commended, because here the music is given the perfect space to diffuse itself into our consciousness. Muted in some ways and shimmering in others, the musicianship on the record refrains from overburdening Johnston. I must say I’m also glad to hear strings that aren’t overly cloying, like they sometimes can be.
“Let it Fall,” coming near the end of the album, is delicate slow burn of a song. Here, the guitars, drums, and strings combine, providing an emotional buoyancy to Johnston’s forlorn lyrics. “When the Wolf Calls” is a haunting closer to the record that belongs in a David Lynch film; the piano is augmented with tendrils of strings creating a haunting nocturnal atmosphere that will stay with you far beyond the end of the song. Deep, brooding and magical, The Starless Room is simply one of the finest artistic statements of 2016. Bravo!
DOWNLOAD: “St. Martha’s,” “Starless Room,” “Dark Water,” “Let it Fall”