[14 September 2009]
Across the light opening lumber of Out Into the Snow, a nine-minute epic entitled “The Drunken Boat”, the perennially weather-beaten Simon Joyner reveals more poise and care than has been displayed over much of his career. Though not really waking until it hits the two-thirds mark and some choppy strings transform the song’s character, it is still a quietly devastating work. It’s as if the first five or six minutes really needed to be monotonous, because without them, the glorious climax is, ultimately, nothing more than beautiful non-meanings. With the build-up, it is magnificent.
Musical templates that take in some graft before they reveal their secrets make up a lot of this odyssey-structured melting pot. Joyner’s various tales of various longing characters and self-analysis are ably illuminated, even revived, by some truly exceptional instrumental augmentations. The lugubrious trombone lines in “Sunday Morning for Sara” delicately tweak the seventh and fall into place after just the right amount of time – impeccably woven in amongst the careworn lyrical constructs. It’s perhaps telling that the weakest track here, the vague and overlong “Last Evening on Earth”, has comparatively very little in the way of instrumentation outside the trad-rock oeuvre, an altogether less charming experience.
When Joyner uses his tools to his utmost advantage, the results can be spellbinding. Even when those tools are, on the delightfully drippy “Peace in My Time”, little more than some pure vocal harmonies and lightly tapped keys, he is able of constructing solidity from seemingly freeform acoustic bases. It’s remarkable how little sound is actually present on the track, and even more commendable that it is wrestled into something pretty and affecting. When the strings finally arrive at the three-minute mark, we see again that Joyner’s grasp on the mechanics of slow songwriting is tight – we are directed effortlessly to feel exactly how he does.
Sparseness and well-placed instrumentation continually play off one another to charming effect, but interesting clarities appear too in Joyner’s voice itself. It is at its most tuneful and reigned-in throughout Out Into the Snow, rather than the sometime-ragged, inflected and faltering warble of previous recordings. You might even describe it as conversational at points, particularly on the meandering title track wherein a train journey is casually described and ornamented with plonks of piano.
The danger is that with all this building of tension, it is a constant and distracting worry that a false move might derail the process and break the spell. This happens occasionally, with the more traditionally wranglin’ tunes feeling slightly too easy and knockabout. For those looking to the future of Simon Joyner’s craft, see the lengthy, winding, and totally satisfying numbers here. Songs this assured are rare to hear with such consistency on one album, and it is a shame that there are one or two less-impressive examples that cloud the reception. In the main, though, this is remarkably well-conceived and lovable, a fine continuation.