Most songs fall into easily knowable categories. Melodically and lyrically, they tend to travel in familiar territory. For better or worse, genre category often tells the listener exactly what to expect, and the listener’s expectations are satisfied. John Condron’s new album, …If Any or At All, defies expectation and delivers a folk-rock hybrid that aims to surprise and enchant.
John Condron is a singer / songwriter from Philadelphia who made his home in Joliet, Illinois, a quintessentially Midwestern manufacturing town outside of Chicago. He’s been writing, recording, and releasing music since 2002, mostly with his former band the Benefit. In 2011, he began producing Irish folk-rock singer Mickey Harte’s music, resulting in Harte’s new album, Forward to Reality. During the same year, his longtime recording and touring band broke up. Without a band, for the first time in ten years, and with a son, for the first time in his life, he found himself undergoing the unrelenting process of transformation initiated by the mysterious hand of fate.
Condron, in a true and time-tested method of artistry, was able to take equal parts of the anxiety, tension, and turmoil of his recent experiences and blend them into a tonic of musical ether.
Released by Flipside Works, …If Any or At All, is a collection of sophisticated songs chronicling the swirl of emotions that engulf any person undergoing serious and significant change.
John Condron plays all the guitars, the bass, and the keyboard, and he’s enlisted skilled musicians to texturize his sound with drums and trombone. Perhaps it is a paradox, but the album manages to sound, in the same moments, sparse and rich. The sonic character of the songs creates an atmosphere of tension rife with the soft, but sustained intensity of emotional mystery. Condron’s melodically complex guitar, which avoids simple riffing but manages to create accessibility all the same, set against a plodding bass drum, ambient keys, or triumphant trombone, empowers him to capture the quiet drama of every day life – the drama that exists during a lonely, sleepless night or a crowded, chaotic morning. …If Any or At All’s sound is hypnotically deliberate in its slow pace, and it demands that the listener invest real time and thought into the listening experience.
It isn’t as if the record is a graduate school homework assignment. It is still fun folk-rock music that should make listeners feel grateful for having the record, but it is also an album fully embedded in the world of adult experience and feeling. It stimulates the mind more than the body, and it moves the spirit more than the feet.
Warren Haynes—extraordinary singer / songwriter, sideman for the Allman Brothers, and frontman for Gov’t Mule—said that when writing songs that music should serve the lyrics and the lyrics should serve the music. Songwriters should work to achieve balance. The deliberate and intensely focused melodies of Condron’s new songs exist in perfect synchronicity and reciprocity with the lyrics to create a cohesive aesthetic of emotional investigation.
The lyrics of Condron’s compositions are strikingly and hauntingly beautiful. They veer between simplicity and profundity to create a mysterious voice of uncertain wisdom. He has the ability to write in lengthy reflection, but balances it with a knack for aphorism.
“How could you live if you lived with yourself in a town of mirrors,” he asks in “Town of Mirrors”.
The chorus of “Walking in Place” lays down a challenge to himself and his audience: “It’s just too dangerous / There’s no need to change our lives / There’s far too much pain for us / There’s no need to change your mind / Walking in place is fine.”
In one of the standout songs on the album, “Cards”, Condron addresses his young son in between taking brutally honest appraisal of himself: “I’m an old man in a graveyard who is takin’ time to case the joint / I’ve learned this short burst of existence is best played straight and to the point…You are the history I speak of - the one I’m willing to tell / Your laughter has raised me many stories…Twinkle, twinkle my little star…There are changes in the cards.”
…If Any or At All’s most upbeat song, “To a Boy”, has the energy of a child’s sprint up a staircase, and as the title suggests, it is also written to Condron’s son. The near punk quality of its rock music strangely and beautifully complements the heartfelt sentiment of the song: “I could spend my whole life doing nothin just to watch you breath / I can’t remember any sound I heard before I heard you laugh / I measure my life in the hours and the minutes that you have had…Just a simple love song / To a boy who sees the world through brand new eyes / Just a simple love song / To a boy to let him know everything is going to be alright.”
Whether it is measuring the missteps he’s taken in his own life, digging up samples of eroded territory from his past, or celebrating his future through the promise of his child, Condron is interrogating the adult world of sophisticated feeling, and he is doing it in a way that demands attentions, provokes thought, and encourages emotion. On top of all that, his new album is a fun and enriching listen.
Condron is currently touring Ireland with Mickey Harte, and will soon return to the United States. Those who see him perform live will get a firm grasp on the excitement and contemplative growth associated with the era that belonged to folkies carrying guitars through city cafes and small town bars. …If Any or At All is a sonic postcard representing that experience and presenting Condron’s thoughts and talents to anyone willing to take the musical and spiritual ride.