Idiosyncratic and Grandly Arbitrary
Old man Michael Hurley’s music lies at the intersection of peculiar and primitive. The songs can move at a snail’s pace, and even that description can seem somewhat generous. By most conventional criteria, one would have to say it sucks—but that is the problem with conventional criteria. As critic Harold Bloom has noted, “All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary,” and while I am wary of calling Hurley a genius, he certainly is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary.
The six songs on his latest 33-minute opus meander down the same slow paths his tunes have taken since his first Folkways release in 1965. He really has not progressed musically, but then again, what would one expect from someone who cranks out tunes in an archaic style on old-fashioned instruments like the pump organ, electric piano, and acoustic guitar that never seem to be quite in tune. The overall effect resembles that of inspired amateurism. There is nothing Hurley does that a person wouldn’t be able to master in just a few hours of practice.
And then there’s his voice. Hurley’s low gurgling rises and falls in tempo and volume without ever changing much, as if he’s singing to himself, even when he’s asking for assistance, as on “Help Me Get Rid of Her—How Sweet I Roamed”. He hypnotizes the listener through the droning, a consequence increased by the nonsensical nature of the lyrics that are more dada-esque than doggerel. One is never quite sure what Hurley is singing about, even when one understands the words.
Hurley’s weirdness acts as a tonic in an age of spectacle. His music does not say “Look at me!” as much as it causes one to listen carefully and construct the experience for oneself. The three songs that feature his guitar playing (“Shockoe Bottom”, “Meara O’Reilly”, and “Tea”) are as introverted as folk music gets. This is back porch playing in which the neighbors are not invited to join in, and the fact that these songs were recorded in a studio rather than by Alan Lomax with a wire recorder in a farm field shows the distinctions between what one considers genuine and created forms is invidious at best. All music is personal.
When Hurley does howl, yodel, or play with his voice, he does so out of a sense of fun. That’s what keeps Blue Hills from falling into something too private. He may be performing for himself, but he’s aware he has an audience. Hurley is not looking for sympathy, but the strange connections common feelings have when one person shares them with another. Sometimes one wants to laugh at his pain, because Hurley knows hurt can be funny. He’s laughing at himself.
What does it mean when the sound of auto-tuned perfect vocals compressed into MP3 files are more familiar than that of a man’s odd voice nakedly presented? The whole idea of what is real becomes questioned. Hurley’s music may not be the answer for everyone. Heck, he surely knows that. But for some, its authenticity is itself enough.