I was introduced to Joseph Arthur like many other melancholy boys. It was my sophomore year of college and I had broken up with my high school sweetheart, for the third time. All parties involved knew the third time was the charm. During this unstable phase my roommate and I enjoyed swapping sad boy music. We were consoled by Buckley’s angelic voice, the Red House Painters stripped down style and the intimacy of an album called Parachutes, long before a song called “Clocks” was a country’s summer anthem. But the most solace I found during this period came in the music of an obscure singer-songwriter from Akron, Ohio whose voice sounded so hollow you thought he was made of wood.
I saw him a few times in college and each time I left feeling a bit uncomfortable. Crowds and lighting were sparse, and Arthur, a few inches taller than my 6’2 frame, lingered over his audience, staring at you until you felt compelled to look away. After one of these shows, I shyly walked up to him, shook his hand and told him that his music had meant a lot to me. He cocked his head to the side, eyes peering below the lenses of the sunglasses he never seemed to part with, and slurred a “cool.”
It only made sense that such earnest, vulnerable music came from a person who would make you feel that out of place. Each time you saw him perform, you’d feel that much more distant from the songs as much as the man. These songs, no matter how well you memorized the words or how many albums you wore out from repeated listens, would never be yours. They were his. And he wanted you to know that. So all week long I asked myself: would the third time live be the charm?
The room is much more crowded than the other shows I’ve attended. A group of college-aged girls hover near the front of the stage and I am immediately bewildered. Who let these women in on our secret handshake? I would never call Arthur’s music misogynistic, but it certainly doesn’t get your average sorority girl shaking her ass. His music is all about the betrayal of trust one sometimes encounters in relationships and the darkness that follows when we try to put things back together. Before my bewilderment can transform into resentment, Arthur appears on the stage, dragging his feet, looking happy to see a strong turnout. He isn’t carrying one of his recognizable hand painted guitars, but instead a piece of black chalk. An eight foot high canvas stands illuminated behind him. Before picking up an instrument, Arthur finds himself in front of this canvas, sketching an outline of what appears to be a person.
Knocking on his guitar softly, he begins to set his beat. Once he finds the right pulse, he records it and sets it into a loop. He strums his guitar to compliment his rhythm section. He will add a human beat box voiceover or additional sounds to add texture to his accompaniment, and then he chooses his song. Most of his songs are repeated in a similar manner to much astonishment, as we all sit in for a joint class in music theory and abstract expressionist art. Every two or three songs Arthur returns to his painting in progress and adds a dash of color here and some shade in a different corner, while singing through the remainder of the song’s chorus. He holds his fist, coated in paint, up in the air and the engaged crowd knows not what to do, so they simply howl their approval.
He strips down his accompaniments and his armor for the lovely, “Honey & The Moon” in which Arthur proclaims, ‘I don’t know why I’m still afraid/ if you weren’t real/ I would make you up/ I wish that I could follow you.” It is one of Arthur’s most romantic songs and this evening, undoubtedly his most appreciated.
“Even Tho”, a favorite track from his last album, Our Shadows Will Remain, is introduced with a nice segue from the previous song and, when its recognizable, bubbly hook comes to focus, the ladies in the front go wild. Proceeding the chorus of “Even though I’m here/ You know I am already gone,” the evil front stage hussies wail “Gone baby!” and Arthur smiles (smiles?!?), shaking his head, letting his friends know they have jumped the gun. Three times this occurs before their pitches meet in unison, as he encourages them like a camp counselor singing songs around a campfire.
He turns around and adds a finishing touch to his portrait as the last looped beat drones out across the crowd. Staring back at us is a three-faced figure, with a blue tear and a red tear dripping from each eye. The figure is holding what might be flowers in one hand and a crucifix in the other. A heart is protruding from its chest and crosses engulf the subject like spaceships. Is this supposed to represent Arthur’s constant sense of opposing forces in his life, tugging him in different directions? Is it a reflection of his multi-placated personality? Are the crosses a sign of the comfort he finds in an omnipotent being?
I don’t know. I’m not supposed to.