Joseph Arthur, 2002
Even as you read this Joseph Arthur is making another record. Or sculpting or painting or tapping rows of Beat prose onto a PowerBook screen. It might have been two years since his Come To Where I'm From album had reviewers alluding to Kurt Cobain and the great New York songwriters, but Joseph and his ever-generous muse have kept near-daily appointments.
The result, for the moment at least, is Redemption's Son. Consistently inspired, occasionally frazzled, and often startlingly beautiful, it's the kind of record you can build a slow, sustainable love affair with, its rich textures, vulnerability and acute, poetic lyrics guaranteed to slacken jaws and raise goose bumps. Reassuringly, it was made by a man with a self-effacing sense of humour and a complete lack of pretension.
Recorded in various locations over the last two years, the album was mixed by Tchad Blake (Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt). Joseph plays most of the instruments himself, but a gold star is also due to Pat Sansone who contributed bass, piano and mellotron parts. Elsewhere, cellist Nadia Lanman appears on Favourite Girl. "Tchad rediscovered it among a bunch of my old recordings," says Joseph.
In truth it's pretty hard to get Joseph to talk about who and what the songs on Redemption's Son are about, perhaps because he feels he's already laid himself bare in their lyrics. "I think vulnerability in art is a really attractive thing," he told Rolling Stone in 2000, "...but it still feels risky to me." His new record, he says, is "honest" and "real. It would be good if people liked the words and thought it was soulful," he adds.
Listening to Redemption's Son, you'll soon recognise themes of dislocation, loss and lost innocence. You should note too, however, that album-closer You've Been Loved was written "for various friends and for myself in reaction to self-pity. It's like you have been loved, so what more do you want?" says Joseph emphatically. He doesn't want your sympathy, just your ears.
All kinds of exquisite details add subtle colour to the album. "Touring Come To Where I'm From I think I developed as a musician a lot," says Joseph "...and that live sampling thing I do (in gigs) is part of this record, too, and hopefully that adds personality and risk. I didn't try and make an art record, but I didn't bend to the commercial realm, either."
Those song lyrics deserve a closer look. Joseph's great at re-jigging simple truths (see I Would Rather Hide's "I know we're all insane when there's no-one else around"), great with simile (witness Honey And The Moon's "we got too much time to kill / like pigeons on my window sill / we hang around") and a dab-hand with black humour (see Favourite Girl's "I've been so happy being unhappy with you"). Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, he understands that a truly great song is a deft marriage of music and words, not a slew of cat/bat rhymes clumsily nailed to a tune. Joseph hones his lyrics, and it shows.
The way that he's using and arranging his voice has taken another quantum leap, too. Witness the near-choral backing vocals on the album's title track, the gorgeous falsetto on Innocent World, his deft-phrasing on the timeless-sounding Blue Lips, and the relaxed, Lennon circa # 9 Dream-type vocal hook which introduces September Baby.
One of the most direct songs on the album, perhaps, is You Are The Dark. "The lyrics about tidying up the place and lying down in the clean emptiness are just directly out of my life," says Joseph. "The song's about that person you used to look at to make you feel good, and how when you look at them now they make you feel horrible. It's that simple."
Quizzed about the Jimi Hendrix-like instrumental passage in Blue Lips, meanwhile, Joseph's happy to hold his hands up: "Yeah, Hendrix has been a huge influence on me, and a huge influence on the music. The psychedelic nature of it comes from him, I think." That love of Hendrix (and Nirvana and Crazy Horse) is also evident in the music of Holding The Void, the "power trio" which Joseph has formed with Pat Sansone and drummer Rene Lopez.
Joseph Arthur was born in Akron, Ohio, became a songwriting obsessive in Atlanta, Georgia, and later moved to New York, where he still lives. Circa 1996 he was still a guitar salesman working for the minimum wage at Clark's Music in Atlanta. Soon, however, Joseph would become the first rock artist to sign to Peter Gabriel's Real World label, releasing Big City Secrets in 1996, the seven-song EP Vacancy in 1999, and then the aforementioned Come To Where I'm From which was voted 'Number One Album of the Year 2000' by Entertainment Weekly and Newsday and 'Top 10 Album of the Year' by several critics including the New York Times and CMJ. Vacancy's vibrant sleeve design - a collaborative effort by Joseph and his friend Zachary Larner - was Grammy nominated for 'Best Recording Package'.
In 2000, journalist Stephen Cox quizzed Joseph about his painting, discovering that his favourite artists include William De Kooning, Franz Kline and Basquiat. "Are you exercising demons (in your own painting)?" asked Cox. "Probably to some degree," replied Joseph. "If you're not dulling yourself or anaesthetising yourself you have a lot of raw energy, and if you're young and your demons are still flabby, then there is a lot of working out to do."
Like Big City Secrets, like Vacancy, like Come To Where I'm From, Redemption's Son features sleeve-art by Joseph himself. This time, though, the emphasis is on sculpture. "There's this florist's shop near my apartment," he explains, "and they have the flowers delivered in these big plastic vessels in all kinds of weird shapes. I use them as a canvas and put stuff all over them: toy soldiers, dolls, plastic flies and trash I've found in the street. There're photos of the finished sculptures on the cover."
Redemption's Son is a special, special record which we warmly invite you to explore.
- Joseph Arthur's brilliant third album proves he was worth the wait 'Redemption's Son exhibits the sure sign of a classic album. The best songs are not nervously loaded at the front. Some of the real gems - the slow, creepy Permission, the unbearably beautiful Favorite Girl and the irresistibly poppy In The Night - emerge nearly an hour into the album.' The Times (UK)
- ...added intimacy without sacrificing dreamy magnetism... '2000's Come To Where I'm From was a near masterpiece. This time round, Grammy-bagging mixer Tchad Blake has replaced T-Bone Burnett as producer and brought added intimacy without sacrificing dreamy magnetism... Arthur's vocals [are] as much soothing balm as quiet venom. Blake's deft touch makes bedfellows of gentle acoustic guitar and gliding strings - I Would Rather Hide and Termite Song are stunning... If there's really a God, the Super Furries-goosing-up-Cockney Rebel wizardry of In The Night ought to be the FM smash of the summer.' Uncut (UK)
- ...Arthur positively sparkles with World Party-style melodies... 'The third album proper from New York resident Arthur positively sparkles with World Party-style melodies and nagging electronic rhythms. The first rock artist to sign to Real World back in 1996, he layers his crafted songs with intelligent Gabriel-ish textures, and emotive vocals and lyrics. His dry throaty delivery lends both a vulnerability to the acoustic beginnings of Innocent World and a pop sensibility to the buzzing, summery I Would Rather Hide. Growing to funkier, psychedelic heights towards the album's close, Redemption's Son is definitely Arthur's strongest offering yet.' Making Music (UK)