Joseph Arthur's is a strange case in the canon of rock criticism. It's
odd when an artist receives overenthusiastic praise for a debut album
that really isn't that good. Stranger still when
the artist releases follow-ups that far exceed the merits of the debut and
are met with little attention critical or otherwise.
Typically, someone like Arthur gets the ball rolling in a big commercial way
pretty quick. On his first full-length he had backing vocals from his
musical forebear Peter Gabriel and obvious inspiration Brian Eno. He also
had the support of high-profile media such as Entertainment Weekly. He
supposedly blazed a trail on the world-music (a wretched signifier) circuit
his debut, Big City Secrets, was released on Gabriel's Real
World label in 1997. And he's a rather attractive dude with a dour charm. To
no avail; to this day he remains a cult favorite.
Arthur is an angsty alterna-folk rocker with a ragged voice,
cleverly opaque lyrics and semi-avant-garde production. After having two albums released on major labels, Arthur returns to the indie fold with the most cohesive work of his career, Our Shadows Will Remain.
Initially recognized for the bizarre instrumentation and atmospheric
production he utilizes on his records (birimbau solo, anyone?), Arthur
appears to have lost his penchant for droning subtext and has hunkered down
on the songwriting here. Clocking in at a crisp 45 minutes, the
album has a poppy flair on songs like "Puppets" and "Even Tho." Employing an
upbeat musical sensibility not often seen on previous releases, Arthur
expands his chunk-of-coal vocals a bit for these more conventional versions. In a time-honored move, he juxtaposes peppier production
with bleak, desolate lyrics about ditching society and loved ones. Isolationism isn't new territory for Arthur but he's reaching a vital peak
"Wasted" grooves over a traditional hip-hop loop that accentuates the
song's swoony, bedraggled sadness. The chorus moans, "Wasted, I need to find
a place to cry." Familiar territory. "Devil's Broom" sports a Westerbergian
rasp with a shimmering chorus that glides over its jangle-pop core. "Echo
Park" is a sober slice of strings and warm sighing. It's the album's tidiest
beauty. There are all sorts of quiet moments of choral bliss on Arthur's
fourth release. And thanks to a beat-driven aesthetic previously unexplored,
the once-airy songs now have some weight behind them.
Sturdier production and straightforward songwriting make a strong backbone
for someone once lauded for his mysticism. It's refreshing to hear a more
clear-eyed vision from Joe Arthur. Of course, that doesn't mean he's much
happier. In fact, he sounds downright distraught. Check out the first verse of
heel-digging lament "I Am": "You live in a darkness/ Made out of your fear/ Looking
to the future/ Never are you here." Not exactly "Shiny Happy
People," but I'll take it over murky world production and corn horn
breakdowns any day.