In a singing voice that is simultaneously throaty and whispered, both soulful and childlike, Joshua James announces his album’s goal in its first lines: “So you say you want a love song / Something to move your feet onto / I’ll sing a real life tune…I hope my little number will do.” The buoyant piano jaunt of the little number that follows belies its downer lyrical content—this is in fact a mournful love song to a world in which some people starve and others are poisoned by the food and air they consume.
The rest of The Sun Is Always Brighter follows a similar pattern. This is an album in which unfailingly beautiful melodies spin around sad stories and impressionistic meditations on confusion, destruction, and loss. Even the one outright love song on the album declares itself in a quietly devastating way: “Darlin’ the dirt beneath your feet / And the scars that line your knees / Are what keep me moving on…Because you’re the cocaine in my veins.”
So it’s not a pick-me-up. But the vocal and lyrical skill with which James evokes his wistful gloom and the pastel shades of the album’s intricate but understated production have a way of evoking the lone ray of sunlight splicing through a rain cloud. Even at the album’s lowest emotional depths, such as “Tell My Pa”’s invocation of the crushing pain of a post-cocaine crash, James reminds listeners that neither they nor the song’s speaker are alone. And even though the lyrics on some of the more blatantly political songs can veer dangerously towards the maudlin and literal, the power of James’ more oblique personal writing—and the strength of the melodies throughout—more than compensates.
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// Notes from the Road
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