Some artists just have music in their soul. David Bowie doesn’t seem to struggle with his albums. The man just has to sing lyrics and put some music behind it, he’ll make it magic with the performance. Elvis Costello can churn out a classic song on command; while Bjork can find music in just about anything you give her. For these people it looks and feels effortless.
Others don’t or, more accurately, can’t. Ryan Adams comes to mind. Oasis is another obvious choice. Conor Oberst could fit into this category, as could Interpol, but they still have a chance to get out.
Joseph Arthur lies somewhere in between these two talent-extremes and he could go in either direction.
When an artist wants desperately to be legendary, it becomes obvious in his product. For whatever reason, Joseph Arthur never appealed to me. Every time I heard his name or saw his picture, I would immediately think of Vincent Gallo. When I listened to his music, I could picture him singing into the microphone while wearing an old, tiny Yes T-shirt and a leopard print Speedo. Then there was his artwork. His albums are decorated with self-composed drawings of enigmatic human figures and heads. They look like a combination of cave drawing and graffiti. Radiohead albums never looked this self-indulgent.
Then, my fiancé played “Honey and the Moon” from Redemption’s Son. It was then that I decided to give the guy another shot.
I proceeded to my nearest Borders and bought Our Shadows Will Remain. After getting home, I unwrapped the album and gazed at the eccentric artwork. I slid the slip from the jewel case to reveal a beautiful landscape of blue sky and mountains. Hmmm…Not bad. Mr. Arthur now had my attention.
The first track began to play. A spacey intro called “In Ohio.” Joseph sings about how you’re going to die alone in Ohio, but he’ll wait up for you. I have no idea what it’s about, or how I’m supposed to relate to it, but I kept the CD going.
The succeeding tracks developed a clearer image of Joseph Arthur for me. The more I listened, the more the picture of Vincent Gallo in my head disappeared, like a Polaroid from Back to the Future. In place of Mr. Gallo’s hairy ass, a talented singer-songwriter began to take shape, blurry at first, but clearer as the album wore on. If Arthur is careful, he’ll be that legend he so desperately wants to be. But, he’s going to have to play his cards right. One wrong move and the production on tracks like “Echo Park” becomes sickly sweet, rather than tender. Or “Devil’s Broom” becomes MOR, rather than an ominously effective rocker. Or, worse, he’ll sound like he’s trying too hard, like Oberst or Oasis.
I still have no idea what most of his songs are supposed to be about, nor do I care. Song after song proves that Arthur is just air being pumped into a balloon of ambiguity, and he doesn’t have long until he bursts through and takes the music scene by storm. Watch out for this guy’s next album, because I can guarantee it will contain a Top 40 hit. Go ahead and listen to him now so as to impress your friends later.
Reviewed on: 2005-01-20