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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Joseph Arthur
Length: 16 tracks
Joseph Arthur is a painter, a poet, a songwriter, a singer and the player of a near orchestral amount of instruments on his latest album Redemptions Son, the piece of art that finally fulfills the potential that made Peter Gabriel sign him as his only western songwriter to Real World Records. To be truthful it is such an awesome piece of work that it must far exceed everything Gabriel ever dreamed it might be. Arthur is an artist and in this one avenue of his wild creative imagination he has meticulously pieced together the album of the year so far. Quite astonishing.
Clocking in at sixteen tracks over 70 minutes of CD, some reviewers have suggested that it would have benefited from a little bit of song editing. Personally I cannot get enough of it. It has brush strokes of Nick Drake, great loud dollops of Muse, rhythmic hip hop douses, Beach Boy like backing vocals, sweet and vulnerable falsetto alongside his more prone to Karl Wallinger vocals but above all we have the most articulate of songs wrapped lovingly and warmly in a marriage of phrasing and melody that none of the plethora of would be singer songwriters - who writing songs and singing them fight with the weirdest quirk to shun that tag - can even dream about.
Ejecting T-Bone Burnette from the production chair is a brave move, especially as Burnette might have more sympathy with the spiritual content of the work than even Arthur himself but after hearing Redemptions Son, one cannot help but feel that Burnette cluttered some of the simple beauty of Arthur’s work out of his previous outing Come To Where I’m From, a surprise for a man who once said that when Counting Crows brought him the roughs of August and Everything After, he thought it sounded too much like an album and produced it into sounding like a demo! Here we have some sparse arrangements, more organic and less clatter though there are sudden changes of texture, volume and mood especially on "Nation of Slaves" and "Permission."
But, it is the poetry, the tenderness, the vulnerability but most of all the depth of spiritual wrestling draws Arthur away from his contemporaries and into the timeless writers who in their subjectivity give an objective perspective on the world that we all need so badly to hear. His terrain is the travelogue of the human existence, peering into heaven and hell, but never just for the sake of it. It is simply the means to allow us to make sense of the journey between the two asking what we should bring and who we should be as we go. There is indeed a lot of movement, not so much giving answers as untangling and prioritizing the questions that we would know where we want to belong and pinpointing many of the dangers that would prevent us getting there, wherever there is.
The strength of the songs is too overwhelming for an album review but a few do need special mention, "Honey and the Moon," "Blue Lips," and "Favourite Girl" all seem to welcome you into the romantic love song but they seduce to deceive and as ever with Arthur you are looking at the soul much more than the heart though his weaving of both with the mind is the secret of his mystic and beguiling enchantment. "Honey and the Moon" is a look to some kind of paradise, “I wish I could follow you/To the shores of freedom” and is the craftiest of all the tunes here, a strange twist of melody that is immediately a comfortable companion. "Favourite Girl" is the most obvious prayer in an album of many prayers, yet prayers that are maybe not even recognized as such by the kneeling heart and maybe that is prayer at its most profound. Here Arthur has had an epiphany that tells him he needs epiphany, “But I’ve just had a revelation/My hearts been dying of starvation/I need somebody who will feed me.” There is then a direct petition that God would bring salvation, “It’s so hard for me to believe Oh Lord/I’m still waiting for you to call.” In "Blue Lips" he recognizes, “The devil is the Lord/Of this confusing world/Where all the wrong dreams come true/ I never needed light/I never felt that I was right/Did not deserve the love I knew.”
So many great lines in so many great songs, so much to wrestle with, to think about, to enjoy. Maybe "Termite Song" as it drifts on towards and beyond nine minutes gives us a hint of the overindulgent lost-in-his-muse-groove that can be part of his live shows but even here there are profundities not to be missed.
Steve Stockman 8/4/2002