I discovered that JOSEPH ARTHUR had released a new album, Redemption City, available from his website, www.josepharthur.com, as free/donate as much as you wish download. (For the record, I paid $12 - don't forget that even starving-artist types need to eat!) It's a brave move on Joseph's part because it's not as if he's ever been a big-selling artist. Indeed, I've no idea how he pays the rent in Brooklyn other than stay out on the road on endless tour (which kind of defeats the point of paying rent in the first place). The fact that Redemption City is available as the option of a free download may tempt some people into thinking that the album is a throwaway or not worthy of a formal release. They'd be sorely mistaken....
Some background on Joseph. I first discovered Arthur in 2000 when he released his second album, Come to Where I'm From on the Real World label. Indeed, the Akron, Ohio, native was the only American recording artist signed to the world music label and that was at the personal behest of its founder, Peter Gabriel, who was so knocked out by Joseph Arthur's demos that he personally called him one day to sign him. (Joseph initially thought the call was a prank.) Come to Where I'm From, which was produced by T Bone Burnett before he became such a famous producer, isn't the most easy access point to Joseph's ouevre. It's often stubborn on the ears and quite bleak in outlook but the album has so much depth that it rewards those willing to venture out from the shallows. It boasts a number of very accessible songs, too, such as the "Chemical," a Beck-like rocker, "History," a hooky number with a staggering chorus that seems caught in a feedback loop, and "In the Sun," an acoustic mini anthem that has since been covered by Peter Gabriel, Chris Martin and Michael Stipe. But the song that absolutely floored me was "Invisible Hands," one of the most harrowing songs I've ever heard - and I mean that as a compliment. It's a song built on echoes and shadows in which Joseph sings on the edge of despair and, eventually, tips over it.
That year, I interviewed Joseph over the phone and it sounded as if I had woken him up. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. My friend David Browne, then head music critic over at Entertainment Weekly, rated Come to Where I'm From the best album of 2000. The followup album, Redemption's Son, was tremendous, too, if perhaps overly long. (Here's my review of it.) It spawned a minor hit in the form of the lovely long song "Honey and the Moon" but, for starters, you really have to hear the title track.
By then, I was snapping up all of Joseph's releases (including his rare EPs and the UK version of Redemption's Son, which has several different songs) and I'd practically collar strangers at record stores and tell them they needed to check out America's great unheralded songwriter.
Alas, the masses had still yet to catch on. The first time I saw Joseph Arthur perform, which was at the Paradise club in Boston, was a show I'll never forget. The room was, at best, half full but Joseph used looping technology to record sounds and riffs and vocals to create an epic, yet highly intimate, sound. I was astonished at his creativity in using those loops to create such a textured sound. (When he abandoned his looping technology to just perform with an acoustic guitar on later tours, he was still good but those shows weren't nearly as good.) A painter with a predilection for painting ghastly skulls-like heads frozen in Edvard Munch-like screams (they're on his album covers), Joseph also occasionally painted while he sang on stage. Bet you've never seen anyone do that, have ya? When he sang "Invisible Hands" as a personal exorcism, he painted a vast canvas with one hand while holding the microphone with the other. Mesmerizing.
In 2004, Joseph Arthur released his masterpiece: Our Shadows Will Remain. It should have made him massive. Q magazine even ran a 4 star review that praised it as his potential breakthrough record. With its varied color palette of sounds and moods, and so many hooky songs, it was a stunning piece of work. The song "The Smile that Explodes" may not have the best of song titles but, trust me, it's great. Newly sober, Joseph quickly followed it up with another fine album, Nuclear Daydream.
Soon after, Joseph tired of creating auteur records and formed a band called The Lonely Astronauts which featured a drummer named G Whiz (really!) and a bassist in the form of a former super model (really!) Though their live shows were entertaining, I felt that the two studio albums were too loose and scrappy even though they each included one or two great songs. From there, I feel as if Joseph Arthur got a bad case of Ryan Adamitis - he started releasing vast amounts of material,often as individual songs on his website, without much self-editing. A succession of four EPs included a handful of wowzer moments (including long-awaited studio versions of old live numbers such as "She Paints Me Gold") but, to my ears, the quality control seemed to have slipped. I enjoyed his 2011 release, Graduation Ceremony, as well as his supergroup with Ben Harper and Dani Harrison, called Fistful of Mercy, and still enjoyed Joseph's shows yet I must admit that my interest in Joseph had waned. The early ardor was no longer there.
Joseph's new album, Redemption City, has been three years in the making. This is no throwaway. It's hands-down his best album since Nuclear Daydream and it has an energy and vitality that comes from creating an album with your back to the wall. These are Joseph's strongest melodies in years. You'll want to hear the knock-out one-two punch of "Travel as Equals" and "Wasted Days" that open the album.
On this record, Joseph deploys his half-rap style of singing more than usual but also switches into his irresistible honeyed falsetto croon during the choruses. The dreamy album centerpiece, "I Miss the Zoo," crests with pretty guitar figure and major chords but it's Arthur's deadpan delivery that gives the song affecting pathos.
What's surprising about Redemption City is how danceable it often is. "No Surrender Comes from Free" mixes a stoner vibe with huge beats. There's an urban grit to the lyrics and grimy instrumentation that befits the album's title and theme. It's a very New York City record. By the time I got around to track 11, "You're not the Only One," I was just thrilled to hear Joseph Arthur create something this good. Oh, it's not a perfect record. At times one wishes that Redemption City had the diversity of moods and sounds that characterized Our Shadows Will Remain but, nevertheless, this is fine stuff.
It's a double album, by the way, and the second part consists of orphaned songs left on the cutting room floor. As Joseph explains on his website, you can choose to download just the main album or the double album. He wisely advises that listeners spend time with disc 1 before migrating to disc 2. I haven't even gotten to disc 2 yet as I am still enjoying the main course. I imagine the dessert will be quite special, too.
So, visit www.josepharthur.com and tuck in. And if you like it, do donate a couple of bucks. Joseph Arthur may believe should art should be free, but it does cost him money!