Jerry Joseph can be an intense son of a bitch, raging against injustice through his lyrics literally and metaphorically while bleeding passionate sarcasm all the way down. But that’s not the vibe one gets while his latest spins around.
Baby, You’re the Man Who Would Be King finds Joseph if not at peace, then at least in a state of tentative acceptance, knowing that you got to sometimes make the best out of the bad and laugh it off (as a certain rooster-haired rocker once rasped). The title track here portends the worst, but its narrator is living in the moment, appreciating the love and joy right before them.
Conversely, “The War I Finally Won” may not laugh in the face of death, but it does give it a strong shrug. It’s about acceptance of what you can’t change. That’s what age plus experience gives you. For both songs, the first two on the album, an open-chorded, neck-racked harmonica drives them, like a bastardized 21st-century version of heartland rock, a sound that adds extra gravitas to the lyrics. This is rock music for adults that have seen some shit… and lived to talk about it.
With Baby, You’re the Man Who Would Be King, Joseph wanted to make a New York album. So, he enlisted Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a man who knows a thing or a thousand about how to make that happen. Roscoe assembled a crew at his Brooklyn studio, Cowboy Technical Services, that included Jeremy Chatzky on bass, drummer Phil Cimino, and Charlie Giordano on Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano, and accordion. Ambel handled the guitars and added harmony vocals with Casey Neil and Mary Lee Kortes. Joe Flood contributed fiddle, and Cody Nilsen provided pedal steel.
With apologies to Patterson Hood, who produced 2020’s acclaimed and powerful The Beautiful Madness (which featured the Drive-By Truckers as the backing band), this is quite bluntly Joseph’s best-sounding album to date and contains his most arresting songs. His voice has also never been as expressive. It’s an impressive performance throughout, sometimes sounding like the bastard child of Elvis Costello and Lou Reed while backed by the mid-1970s Rolling Stones.
Highlights include the moody, nocturnal drive of “Carmen Miranda”, the Byrdsian two-step of “Am I OK”, and the record’s centerpiece, “Loving Kindness”. On it, Joseph’s harmonica drives a lazy but steady tempo as he delivers short, simple lines about encouragement, spirituality, faith, love, and kindness. The song acts as a mantra for peace and contentment. It represents the overall tone of Baby, You’re the Man Who Would Be King; at times, everyone may seem crazy, and there could be trouble and heartbreak hiding in the shadows, but while the sun’s out, dammit, let’s soak it in.