[29 June 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Believe it or not, “complete creative control” can be a very bad thing.
When Joseph Arthur started out his career in the late-‘90s, he was an alt-folk troubadour who wasn’t afraid to rock out on occasion. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that it was Peter Gabriel who stumbled upon his demo and helped in getting the young lad signed. But Arthur’s output since has been nothing but prolific: six full-length albums, 11 EPs, and that whole “Museum of Modern Arthur” thing. After playing the label game for awhile, Arthur ultimately found happiness in starting up his own label (Lonely Astronaut), working on his paintings as well as recording dozens upon dozens of songs, most of which remain unreleased to this day. Having cultivated a loyal following, Arthur is now able to make his own music at his own rapid-fire pace, all with—that’s right—complete creative control.
Unfortunately for him, such control does not equal focus.
Could We Survive and Crazy Rain are the first two EPs in a set of four that Arthur has released as a lead-up to his seventh full-length album, Temporary People, due later this year. He’s pulled off this multi-EP stunt before, with 2002’s Junkyard Hearts quadrilogy, but at the end of the day, 2008’s go-round is nothing to write home about. While Could We Survive is labeled as Arthur’s “traditional”-sounding EP and Crazy Rain serves as the wannabe dance disc, both remain remarkably hookless, thankless pop affairs.
Of the two, the shorter Could We Survive fares better. It remains firmly rooted in the glistening folk-pop of his past, and though it doesn’t reach the spectacular heights of, say, “Honey & the Moon”, it is by far the more effortless of the two. “Shadows of Lies”—despite its terrible title—is thoroughly enjoyable streamlined pop, with acoustic guitars fluttering around simple keyboard patterns and Arthur’s multi-tracked voice. The mellow, sweet ballad “Morning Cup” remains the highlight, as it proves to be delicate without being too precious, rounded out by percolating piano lines and an off-kilter sense of (much-needed) whimsy. The rest of the disc, however, can be faulted for being too accessible. “King of the Pavement,” a track that would’ve been a passable song (or at least B-side) in any artist’s discography, is polished of all edge. Arthur’s disaffected crooning is lost amidst his addiction to vocal reverb. Though Arthur’s a good producer, he’s almost too good, often forgetting that just a twinge of grittiness at least shows that there’s a passionate soul at work, instead of well-oiled song machine…
… which, as Crazy Rain evidences, is almost exactly what he’s become. Despite this eight-track affair’s obsessions with drum machines and electronics, Rain is an absolute buffet of indulgence, with Arthur blindly convincing himself that he’s the master of any and all genres. “I Wanna Get You Alone” is perhaps the most glaring fault, as over a gritty bassline and throbbing beat, Arthur repeats the title for a seemingly-endless minute before launching into barely-decipherable falsetto crooning, all making for a remarkably grating experience. The spacey “Dream of the Eternal Life” is filled with generic mid-tempo harmonies and surprisingly pedestrian lyrics. “Nothin 2 Hide”, meanwhile, rolls along in a druggy haze, unsure of its melody or even its purpose, which ultimately describes the entirety of Crazy Rain. For all its attempted neon bravura, Crazy Rain feels drained of all color.
Of course, it’s hard to fault Arthur for contracting Robert Pollard Syndrome, as there are some genuine gems within the fray. In the end, though, it just might be best for Arthur to get his genre-hopping out of his system. Once he’s burned himself out, all he’ll have to return to are the simple joys that got him here in the first place.