Joshua James’s first album, The Sun Is Always Brighter, while frequently lovely, ran the risk at times of disappearing into the oceanic whisper of other breathy male singer-songwriter product. Many of the songs had a gloriously dark edge, but the arrangements were too pretty for the bitter pills to take effect. The harder edge of the songs on Build Me This should ensure that James’s dark tales send their messages more effectively.
There is still much smoothness, though. The album opens with the intensely catchy “Coal War”, which builds, gospel-style, from James’s vocal refrain accompanied only by light percussion, through added backing vocals, handclaps, footstomps, and a simple backbeat, to a full-band exposition of the theme complete with electric guitars, organ, and aggressive rock drumming. By this point the soundworld is clearly harsher than before, and as the tune enters its middle section, James’s voice becomes raucous, as if wishing to escape the honeyed surface of that earlier work. A moment of calm appears for the delivery of the lines “what a thing to do / put poison in the well”, and then we are led to a successful reintroduction of the refrain. It’s a well-planned out five minutes of music, the parts and layers providing an excellent introduction for what is to follow. Its lyrics are prophetic too, for there is plenty of poison in James’s inkwell.
The harder guitar and drum-driven approach is again in evidence on “Magazine”, where Phil Parlapiano’s organ also provides a warm wash of sound. This, another well-constructed piece, opens out in its final quarter into an elegiac meditation led by violin and piano. “Weeds” is a beautiful and simple song performed by a trio of James on guitar and vocal, Stuart Maxwell on mandolin, and Brandon Campbell on bass. Here, the country, folk, and blues music that forms the bedrock for James’s sound is most obvious.
Each track has a distinct musical setting. The Celtic-sounding “Annabelle” is driven by fiddle, mandolin, and accordion, while “Pitchfork” focuses on vocal harmonies in a manner that recalls Fleet Foxes (who, like their forebears Crosby Stills & Nash, are further examples of sugarcoating occasionally sinister material). “Black July” provides hard electric blues and gives a good clue as to how James has seemingly shifted from a transcriptive to a prescriptive mode of recording. If The Sun Is Always Brighter was an exercise in intimately recorded sound, this album feels far more like a template for explosive and explorative live performance.
Across the album a wide range of instruments are utilized: organ, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, cello, and pedal steel supplement the more orthodox rock lineup. The themes of the 13 songs, meanwhile, are resolutely mature: redemption, damnation, hatred, illness, bitterness, and benediction. Religious imagery abounds, lending the songs an allegorical power that their elliptical lyricism reinforces. “I have hope for others, Father, but, I, I have given up”, James has one of his protagonists sing, and it’s a typical lyric on an album that recognizes doom and the Messianic in equal measure. “It’s a long way to—and a short ride from—the top / It’s a rotting middle finger and the cancer will not stop”, James sings on “Wilted Daisies”, a song with all the hallmarks of a Bright Eyes classic with its insistent melody and support from lap steel and organ. Like Conor Oberst, James has a knack for melding the poetic with the melodic to provide unavoidably catchy feel-bad songs. Early Wilco is another obvious reference point.
This is much less of a wolf in sheep’s clothing than was James’s previous album, but the smoothness still occasionally riles. Like David Gray, he runs the risk of allowing a compelling voice to be the raison d’être of a song. Fortunately, like Neal Casal, he is also aware of the need to complement his smoother side with harder rock and a variety of sounds. More importantly, with his opaque, inviting lyrics and his awareness of song dynamics, he proves with this release that he is an original voice in his own right. Build Me This is a confident and inspired collection of songs by a writer and performer who is really hitting his stride. His barbs go deep, and this time they have the power to lodge themselves in the minds of many listeners.