As a concept album about a modern messiah, The Ballad of Boogie Christ sees Joseph Arthur falter at points and soar at others, leaving it overall a very good addition to his discography, but likely not to go down in the upper tier of his best recordings.
Joseph Arthur is a singular type of songwriter. In terms of his prolific output, diverse sonic palette balancing experimentalism with accessibility and his sheer sincerity, he's nearly unrivaled among his peers. Arthur's integrity and his knack for seeing the light through the gloom are the origins from which all of his artistry flows, be it musical or in paint. Whatever one may think of his persona and songs, there's no arguing he is genuine in all that he does, spiritually devoted to the muse that symbiotically rewards him for his loyalty. The Ballad of Boogie Christ is the latest offspring of Arthur's frenetic work pace, his third album — fourth if you count predecessor Redemption City's double LP set as two albums — in two years. A mostly solid record — funded by fans via PledgeMusic — it has no shortage of high points, though it nonetheless sputters at points, showing that even the muse can get tired and needs some regrouping at times.
Largely forsaking the acoustic folk-meets-digital of past records and the nouveau R&B grooves of Redemption City, Arthur instead adopts a smoky and humid '60s southern soul vibe with The Ballad of Boogie Christ. Such a shift does not, however, come at the expense of Arthur's trademark multi-layered soundscapes, which are as complex and nuanced as ever. The instrumentation throughout is indicative of a Memphis flavor, an abundance of brass, electric keys and female backing vocalists augmenting the standard configuration. Lyrically, Arthur has always had a penchant for referencing Christian mythology in his words, but scarcely has it been so recurrent as it is here (as if the album's title didn't give it away), with biblical imagery and check-ins with Jesus popping up in just about every song. Arthur has said the album is something of a loose concept record, it being a story of Boogie Christ as a character. The Southern tone of the music works to support such a religious motif, the frequent electric organ lending a gospel feel on such cuts as "Famous Friends Along the Coast" and the hymnal-esque reworking of "I Miss the Zoo".
The track most entrenched in the soul heritage is that which opens the record, "Currency of Love". The piece shuffles along as a cascading saxophone and other horns blurt accompaniment to Arthur's wayward troubadour going from passively reflecting on his lot in life to clamoring for relief. On follow-up track, "Saint of Impossible Causes", Arthur relapses a bit to the quirky experimentation of previous records, a jangly sitar merging with metronomic percussion. Through the verses, Arthur provides a litany of imagined saints he seeks for comfort, those of detectives, killers, weapons, drinking, healing, health, money and wealth, realizing in the sing-along chorus that what he truly needs is the saint of music, the saint of love.
After these two buffers, among the album's strongest, comes the title track, ironically the record's most awkward number. Amid washes of electric organ notes, Joan Wasser's straining violin and building horn arrangements, Arthur gets messianic in reciting characteristics of a modern day Christ. Normally, the poetry in Arthur's lyrics ranks him in the upper echelon of modern songsmiths. Here, though, he falters, a number of the lyrics wince-inducing and coming across as forced rhyme scheming: "Christ baked potatoes / Christ chewing gum / Christ without pathos / Saying 'yum yum'" and "Christ would be handsome / Christ would be gross / Christ would buy butter / And make you some toast" among the clumsiest. Amplifying the disjointed tone are the overwrought, belting backing vocals. Altogether, these elements obscure some otherwise insightful observations on Jesus' selfless teachings and how they've become so corrupted. On the other hand, in the context to this being a concept album, one could argue this song is providing imagery to introduce the central character, and such seeming nonsense is intended to be jarring.
The Christ allusions continue in "I Used to Know How to Walk on Water", again, if that wasn't obvious enough from the title. Thankfully, this tune wipes out the bad taste of "The Ballad of Boogie Christ", a slow number built around a first-hand account of a humbled deity seeking answers and renewal (whether this is literal or metaphorical is up to the listener). This is not a God necessarily benevolent though, as the lyrics give some clues that his powers were used toward selfish ends ("I could give sight to blind men / And make a mute man sing in hell"), and that, in truth, is what has lead to his fall. Forlorn trumpets and flugelhorns played by John "Scrapper" Sneider and Wasser's returning violin suitably convey the narrator's sense of being adrift. As the music fades out, guest Ben Harper's vocals take center stage, giving the soulful pleading that extra oomph. To give an element of personal resurrection to the record, Arthur serves a new, stripped down take of "I Miss the Zoo", originally appearing on Redemption City. With acoustic guitar strumming and stark piano notes, Arthur runs through vivid stream-of-consciousness lyrics amounting to an ode of a destructive former life best left behind. Despite the Beefheartian surreal imagery rolling off Arthur's tongue ("I miss staying up for days and becoming a psychic pretzel flying kites / Chewed on by Zulu heading with toads to Mars"), the substance abuse references are clear, and Arthur masterfully conveys a duality of emotion in being proud over triumphing over his sins and feeling nostalgic for them. Toward the end, the song's mounting intensity reaches its zenith just as Arthur himself loses it, his voice scaling upward while the music gets aggressive for a moment, then tapers off.
The record's second half is the weaker of the two sides, but it has plenty of good tunes. "It's OK to be Young/Gone" features subdued verses that explode into a rocking mantra of the repeated title, championing freedom and, perhaps, reincarnation. "Still Life Honey Rose" gives the impressionistic narrative of a man leaving his family to pursue his own ambitions, then coming back too late to try to make amends, a pensive nighttime melody carrying it along. Closer "All the Old Heroes" is a slice of optimistic storytelling in the classic Arthur fashion, affirming that past transgressions can be pushed aside. It is the longest number here at more than seven minutes, and sends the record off on a high note.
With these pros and cons weighed against each other, The Ballad of Boogie Christ remains a very good Joseph Arthur record, but it lacks the immediate virtues of his greatest albums. It's a worthy addition to his discography, but likely not to go down in the upper tier of his best recordings.