by Thom Jurek
In 1991, the British literary quarterly Granta published the provocatively titled thematic issue The Family: They Fuck You Up, titled from a poem by Philip Larkin. Its contents include an early excerpt fromMikal Gilmore's memoir Shot in the Heart, about his Mormon family and enduring the pain caused by his infamous brother Gary (executed for murder in 1977); William Wharton's harrowing revelation of losing family members to a multiple car accident; Sappho Durrell on her father, author Lawrence, and personal reflections from Mona Simpson, Harold Pinter, and others. The connection between it and restless songwriter Joseph Arthur's shambling, conceptual album The Family is tenuous, but there. It's not that Granta influenced him, but that the stories he relates here extract some of the same truths, and more importantly, diverge from them.
The Family's origins date to 2013, before he released Ballad of Boogie Christ. Arthur purchased a 1912 Steinway Vertegrande piano that had been owned by a single family, and he wrote these songs on it. His liner essay reveals that until now his relationship to the piano was an ambivalent one, but it provided him a gateway to music. Arthur plays and sings everything here; Tchad Blake mixed and sequenced it. This record is messy, musically, sonically, and emotionally, and unapologetically indulgent. The narrative thread connecting these songs about family dynamics is overarching but Arthur never overreaches. The songs are peopled with characters both fictional and real. Names are sometimes changed; sometimes not. Themes of loss, dysfunction, forgiveness, surrender, boredom, sorrow, irritation, and difficult love intertwine throughout.
In "They Call Him Lightning," a raw loop and primitive snare ride rough through stinging, bluesy guitars and elegiac piano to frame a story line from WWII. A number of tracks -- "Machines of War," "The Flag," "Daddy, The War Machine" -- reflect on war and its impact on family. "Ethel Was Born" dates to the era of the Titanic and details the psychological aftermath of a father's suicide. "You Keep Hanging On" is a slippery, wrenching, lo-fi rock ballad that portrays a desperate love that endures even when it shouldn't. The colorful, punchy "Sister Dawn," dressed in ragged pop, is both homage and warning to a sibling not to raise her own children the way she was raised.
The off-kilter pop in "You Wear Me Out" recounts, via rambling piano and reverbed guitars, a speed freak complaining about a husband who nags her about "the kids." The refrain in the skittering new wave-ish anthem "Hold On Jerry" stands in stark juxtaposition to its hook-laden arrangement: "This love is complicated/This death is overrated…."
The Family isn't a grand statement, but an intimate one. Despite the dark threads that run through it and bind it, this collection is as moving as it is harrowing, as tender as it is tenacious. It's an album Arthur had to make, and as such is completely redemptive.