To say that this is Arthur's best release in years would be something of an understatement.
What an absolute pleasure it is to write this review. For the longest time, it felt as if once-notable folk-rock troubadour Joseph Arthur had lost not just his muse, but his mind. Ever since forming his Lonely Astronaut record label/backing band, Arthur seemed content just releasing anemic rock jams for the rest of his life, something that came to harsh light in 2008, when Arthur released one terrible EP after another after another. All the EPs were released as a run-up to Temporary People, Arthur's first full-length since 2007's insufferable Let's Just Be. Needless to say, the cards were not stacked in Arthur's favor.
So imagine the surprise to be had when you pop in Arthur's new disc, Temporary People, for the first time. No, it doesn't reach the previous heights reached by 2002's Redemption's Son, but to say that this is Arthur's best release in years would be something of an understatement. Gone are the drum-machine dance-rock experiments, the late-night Lonely Astronaut meandering jam sessions, and the distorted-to-the-point-of-being-indecipherable vocals. By flushing out all of his half-hearted obsessions with his quadrilogy of '08 EPs, it seems that the only option Arthur left himself was to record nothing but solid, sturdy, memorable songs -- and what a blessing it is.
"Temporary People" opens the set, sounding like the most focused song Anton Newcombe never wrote, replete with "la la" backing vocals and Arthur's paranoia-in-isolation lyrical stance. The Lonely Astronauts, before just a collection of ho-hum jam buddies, burst into the scene this time out, giving the title track a fully-bodied feel that strengthens over the course of five minutes, climaxing with Arthur's wild-yet-focused guitar solos and a prevailing sense of, well, fun...something Arthur hasn't exhibited in his songwriting for some time.
Arthur's newfound infectious love of songwriting carries through on several of Temporary People's best tracks, like the positively propulsive rocker "Dead Savior", a song that uses its slide-guitar and male vocal harmonies to almost become a barn-burning country rocker. But it never quite reaches that point, largely due to Arthur's delightfully sarcastic delivery. Some songs drip with irony while others turn out to be a bit more heart-felt, such as the fantastic "Heart's A Soldier", which one-ups the Killers' "I got soul / But I'm not a soldier" singalong by bringing in even more people to chant an ode for Arthur and Arthur alone: "It's a real tough life when you're searching for ecstasy / so go on / show a little faith in me". It feels as if, for the first time in a long time, Arthur has stopped writing songs just because he can. He's writing them because he actually has something to say.
Yet a few things keep Temporary People from being a late-period masterpiece for Arthur. First of all, though this disc is free of a single outright terrible moment, some of the good-to-average songs sound weaker when placed in the middle of this album, getting lost in a mid-tempo slush that lessens their impact. "Turn You On" is a fine, almost Dylan-esque rocker by itself. It just feels a lot less special coming off the heels of both "Heart's a Soldier" and the jazzy "Dream Is Longer Than the Night". This problem of sequencing also weakens closing track "Good Friend". It's a fine lament on its own, but a remarkably uninteresting way to close the album. Though some tracks will be memorable on their own and in the context of the album (the rousing "Look Into the Sky"), others, like the fairly bland "Drive", just get lost in the shuffle.
At the end of the day, however, there is truly much to celebrate with Temporary People. It is Arthur's best, most enjoyable work in years, and a very good sign for what's to come. It may not be Arthur's masterpiece, but it leaves you thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, his defining statement might be just around the corner.