[17 September 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ghosts is the new album from singer-songwriter Simon Joyner, and it serves as a sort of celebration for the performer. This year marks his 20th anniversary as a recording artist, and though he’s remained too far under the radar for his career, he had marked his twenty years in independent music with a new, well, independent project. Well, sort of. Joyner raised money through his fanbase on Kickstarter, but even this act serves as another celebration of the close relationship between an independent artist and their fanbase, and Joyner used that connection to—like many people—put his latest record together.
He also put it out on his own, Sing, Eunuchs! label, which he resurrected for this release, and he used all those Kickstarter funds to knock out a nearly 90-minute double album bursting with big ideas and bigger songs. It’s a generous set from a guy who has spent his career devoting himself to his craft. What Ghosts does not do—smartly—is rehash Joyner’s early lo-fi days. Instead, this is a rattling, loose and gritty full-band set, something far more wide-open than his last record, Out Into the Snow, and less controlled in its dark textures than 2006’s Skeleton Blues.
This is a set with gnarled guitar parts and rattling cymbals, not to mention feedback and looping atmospherics that swirl around some down-and-out folk tunes. From the wobbly opening notes of the fittingly off-kilter “Vertigo”—complete with the most untethered howl Joyner has committed to tape in some time—you know that this is the most experimental and curiously huge set of Joyner’s career. He’s written plenty of long songs to great effect—see Lost with the Lights On—but these are unruly, burred at the edges. Guitars ring in defiant buzzing waves of the nearly nine-minute “The Tyrant”. “If It’s All Right With You (It’s All Right With Me)” is split into two parts—the first a noir-black blues rocker, the second a tangle of violins and jangling guitars and Joyner’s echoing voice in the distance. Even songs that seem to play it straight, like the dusty folk of “Answering Machine Blues”, there’s still strings humming like a bee hive on the edges.
These songs make the best of rock bottom, often with the eye for shadowy detail Joyner has always had. “When the Worst Doesn’t Happen”, one of the album’s highlights, he tells us “that’s called Good Luck”. On another late-album gem, “If I Left Tomorrow”, Joyner imagines heartache, saying “If I left tomorrow, you’d remember today, / As something that happened to you yesterday”. In these songs, and all over Ghosts, people define themselves by a lack, by the next catastrophe, by all the hurt they can unfold and wrap themselves in.
So, if the existence and generosity of a big album like Ghosts is a celebration, the music itself is decidedly un-celebratory. Everything crawls along at a dirge here, most of it—with the exception of the more pastoral tones of songs like “The Last Parade”—paint pictures in bleak, grayish hues. And while Joyner has long been good at this kind of melancholy, it feels like far too much here. Some songs build in their long run times, but others like “Lullaby” or “Will You Stand Up For Me?” or “Hard Luck Heart” just trudge along in sad monotone, the songs not so much moving forward as they are standing in place kicking at their own dust. The piano on “Hard Luck Heart” is a welcome warm tone, but it fades out for ambling banjo and distance chimes. “Lullaby” could be a bittersweet gem here, but it’s weighed down by cymbal pings that never become a full-on beat and feel non-committal and pedal steel that wafts around with no real order to it.
There is just too much of Ghosts for its own good. And while this may be beside the point for an album made so pointedly for fans who have a close connection to Joyner’s work, it does hamper an album with plenty of great moments. There’s a solid album buried in the wandering 87 minutes of this album, and it’s one that deserves to come out, one that shows us that sometimes independence still needs some restrictions, even for a songwriter of Simon Joyner’s talents.