Call this beautiful record what you will: late-night or rainy-day music. Whatever, it demands active listening.
Simon Joyner’s new album is not going to be the one that brings him to the masses, and he’s probably okay with that, having made it known in numerous interviews that he is content to spend his quality time with his family and his antique business. Joyner writes songs in the service of his own personal muse, and, while he is appreciative of being appreciated, he can work from the perspective of owing the music industry nothing. He tours sparingly, not wanting to be away too long from his Omaha, Nebraska home, playing house parties, it seems, as often as formal venues. He’s not anti-careerist, it’s just that he has his own vision of what his career should be, and that vision doesn’t jibe with our fame-and-fortune-obsessed culture. Joyner’s fan base, nonetheless, continues to grow with each release as positive word of mouth spreads. Members of that small but steadily growing base will certainly embrace Grass, Branch & Bone as another in Joyner’s long line of strongly written and performed albums.
Joyner continues to sing in a voice reminiscent of Songs of Love and Hate-era Leonard Cohen to spare musical accompaniment -- 2012’s more expansive Ghosts notwithstanding. Even when accompanied by multiple partners, each instrument in the album mix occupies its own space, like multiple voices in a room, adding volume and enhancing mood while creating loose and flowing melodies, seemingly by happenstance. Call this what you will: late-night or rainy-day music, but it demands active listening. Joyner is a songwriter whose words are at the fore, the sparse notes carefully constructed to frame his images and turns of phrase.
Grass, Branch & Bone is an album of passages. Opening song “Sonny” presents a eulogy-like farewell to a Rimbaudian fellow songwriter: “First you sing about drugs, / Then you sing about death, / But you wanted to sing of love / With your last breath.” As noted, Joyner is a songwriter who, perhaps more than any other, evokes Leonard Cohen’s dark wit, but his evocations never stoop to mimicry. And he can even surpass the master with lines like “You said Keats was never alone: / He had the company of his cough.” “Jefferson Reed” amplifies the sense of ending while offering a tonic to the simplistic patriotic jingoism that has followed the release of the Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper. Joyner’s fictional sharpshooter “kept his powder dry” and died with all seeming honor, doing his duty so well they “sewed his lips together so no secrets could get out” before folding the flag over his body. Returning again and again to the hollowness of ceremony, Joyner turns his attention to the meager attempts of the living to get by, sharing fruit baskets and casseroles in the shadow of the service. And it’s the little details that so underline the big lies of most hero narratives, none so more here as when Joyner turns his attention to other equally dutiful participants: “And I caught my breath as the honor guard sat down to eat / Because they were almost old enough to have a drink on me / And after today we could all use a shot of something.”
Joyner tackles the tenuousness of love on “You Got Under My Skin”, noting how a piano and typewriter ribbon served as the tools of his seduction. When he sings, “I know part of me is wicked, although some of me is brave,” one can hear echoes of Townes Van Zandt. Later, in a beautifully twisted cliché, he sings, “You closed you hazel eyes and make like a tree, lay down some roots.” The listener expects the line to end with the cliché of “leave”, and when it doesn’t, the surprise of stability amidst so much restless change is made all the deeper. But, as he reminds us elsewhere in “Some Fathers”, “Even blood turns to dust / Only love stays.” A chorus of strings intercedes for a moment, and in “Old Days”, Joyner sings of those friends who get left behind or lose themselves in the past, warning how people selfishly “just get stuck living old days,” but then, in a moment of self-realization has to admit that “I always looked forward to being the last one standing, / But I carry a grudge against anyone who leaves.” His voice breaks with the intensity of remembered loss but then softens before the photo of an estranged friend’s new baby, so innocently greedy to consume her own world.
Joyner encapsulates the disquieting lesson of his mortal ponderings when he sings, “Everyone wants to believe their time was special” in the sublime album closer “Nostalgia Blues”. But such realization is not a defeat. Yes, he reminds us, we curse those sweet dreams that so misled us by never coming true, but then, the trick is, simply, in the living itself. “I’ve heard the sky blooms Picassos though if you stop and give the clouds half a chance,” he sings, realizing that a heart still beating restlessly can find contentment in the striving: “Ah here’s to the sweet dreams that wouldn’t leave us alone.”
And here's to another beautiful and deeply touching Simon Joyner record.