My Jerusalem is one of those bands you must listen to in the darkest hours, their music depending on the dropping away of the sun for it to spread out and breathe. Like Morphine or Murder By Death, to listen to My Jerusalem in daylight hours is to get but a compressed representation of what they have to offer, getting the tune without the mood, essentially. This is so because, for the Austin quintet, it’s not merely about writing and performing songs, but imbuing them with atmosphere and taking the listener on a trip into a nocturnal setting where the most torrid and primitive emotions can flourish. With sophomore album Preachers, the group plunges into that noir realm, wrangling with those urges and unveiling a masterpiece in the process.
With My Jerusalem more a full-fledged band than the side project collective that spawned their 2010 debut Gone For Good, the resulting album likewise displays more cohesion and consistency in its subject material and musical terrain. With singer-guitarist-lead songwriter Jeff Klein the lone returning figure from the previous record, though, the familiar themes remain intact. Exploring the complexities and addictive natures of love, obsession, regret and self-loathing has been Klein’s bread and butter, both with My Jerusalem and as a solo artist, but never has he presented them with such cinematic scope as on Preachers, nor has he embraced them such mature insight. Clearly, his time spent with Greg Dulli over the last few years has had its influence.
If there’s a unifying concept running through the entirety of the record, it would be the struggle between animalistic cravings and sacred aspirations. The role Klein dons throughout most of the album is that of a lustful id striving for some degree of holiness to temper the savage carnality. Klein addresses this juxtaposition directly in “Death Valley” with the pained description of being “Lost in the city / The city of angels / Down in the valley / The Valley of devils.” Love and lust are indistinguishable to the characters residing in this landscape, the subtlety of romance seeming to be an inanity when brutal intimacy will suffice. Were the name not already taken by Leonard Cohen, the album could very well be titled Songs of Love and Hate.
These competing forces are expressed succinctly on the sexed-up strut of the opening titular track. With Jon Merz’s twinkling keynotes and drummer Grant Van Amburgh’s shuffling percussion beginning the cut, Klein emerges to deliver the couplet that could summarize the album’s overarching motif: “This preacher ain’t no pacifist / So give me dirty knees and bloody lips.” As the song progresses, the narrator makes seduction a threat, the pontificating clergyman spreading a gospel of sin to his congregation. Truth be told, the song could be related from the perspective of Reverend Harry Powell of The Night of the Hunter, his brand of conflicted evil and sought-after saintliness being precisely what is conveyed here. With the cooing backing vocals sounding like the ghosts of the dastardly reverend’s victims rising from the delta mire, it’s hard not to picture Robert Mitchum in his iconic role. When Klein yelps the refrain of “We’re all animals in the well”, you’re not sure if he’s bemoaning this as a sad realization or if he’s championing this fact as an excuse to indulge in wickedness.
Such menace continues into the next song, “Shatter Together”, albeit in a more restrained fashion. The song begins with Geena Spigarelli’s throbbing bassline, pregnant with tension and replicating the pulse of one venturing into a red light district for the first time. With Klein intoning observations of hazard in the verses, the tune abruptly shifts in the chorus with the shimmering interplay of guitar and keys, crafting a melody belying the mutual destruction the lyrics espouse. “I’ll be your mirror / We can shatter together,” Klein sings in the chorus, the clever wordplay with its implication of bad luck likely a direct homage to the Velvet Underground. Such a reference is fitting, as My Jerusalem in many ways chronicles a Deep South underbelly comparable to the VU’s brand of urban seediness. Also like the Velvet Underground, My Jerusalem showcases a knack for being able to seamlessly segue from down and dirty, raucous cuts to ones that are genuinely pretty (for lack of a better term) in their arrangements. Take “Mono”, for example; it’s an understated, bluster-free ballad loaded with moribund imagery (“You’re gonna die in this room / In your twin-sized coffin tomb”), yet it’s no more out of place than the VU’s “Sunday Morning” or “Here She Comes Now” were on their respective albums.
The range of expression contained in Preachers is largely due to Klein’s voice, an instrument able to shift from smoky whisper to croon to lacerating scream, often within the same song. The deft musicianship of Spigarelli, Van Amburgh, Merz and multi-instrumentalist Michael St. Clair and the tight interplay between them allows for the various styles to be carried out with aplomb and without the album running the risk of sounding repetitive. For the pummeling firestorm of “Born in the Belly”, there is the jubilant “This Time”, full of handclaps, vaguely carnival-esque keyboards and echoing background vocals. For the tribal drum pattern and sweeping grandeur of “Death Valley”, there is the prison cell isolation of “Between Space”, the most subdued and pathos-laden track here (“There must be a better life / Than this one of mine,” Klein sings, coming across as a though he’s facing an authentic existential crisis rather than merely wallowing in self-pity).
A large degree of credit for the record’s palpable aura goes to producer and Spoon drummer Jim Eno. His efforts in the booth impart the album with a palette that is, somehow, both lush and sparse, the jazzy brass elements serving more as texture than dominating as on Gone For Good. The haunting “Devoe” is the best representation of Eno’s influence, the keyboards sounding as though they were recorded in a different dimension. Thanks to the stellar production, the comedown of “Chameleon” similarly sees the band tackle a delicate endeavor with panache, namely, mixing a country-western guitar line with robotic drum beats. “You’ve been painting on / Another’s skin / Always on your own / Chameleon,” Klein sings, his tone sympathetic rather than judgmental.
Wrapping the record, and encapsulating the disparate factors at play in My Jerusalem’s DNA, is the backhanded pseudo apology of “I Left My Conscience in You”. Initially an acoustic paean to lost love, the bridge sees a Brian Jonestown Massacre-style guitar swell up before the bottom drops out, erupting into bedlam. As the vortex of crashing drums and distorted guitars swirls around for the last couple of minutes of the album, the narrator’s tormented state of mind is simulated perfectly. It’s a fantastic album-closer, both distilling all of the band’s strengths in a six-minute sprawl and delivering a sense of resolution in climactic fashion.