John Moreland 2024
Photo: Pearl Rachinsky / Big Feat PR

John Moreland Goes It Alone As a ‘Visitor’

John Moreland’s gift to listeners is rooted in his alienation, as on his latest album, Visitor. We visit his world as a way to find ourselves.

John Moreland
Thirty Tigers
5 April 2024

John Moreland‘s last album, 2022’s Birds in the Ceiling, differed greatly from his previous folk-country efforts. Simply put, the record featured a host of electronic effects. His latest one, Visitor, is a solo, acoustic effort featuring traditional instruments. It’s unlike both his earlier recordings and his digital one in fundamental ways. Visitor is basically a solo record. It is much more introspective and less narrative than his earlier recordings, and it’s personal and quiet.

The back story goes like this: Moreland stopped touring and isolated himself during 2023. He stayed at home in Bixby, Oklahoma, didn’t use a cell phone for six months, and took time off the grid and from previous routines. As a performing musician, one usually has to plan ahead (what is the best career move). That can easily separate one from the artistic inspiration that led one to become a musician. Moreland purposely isolated himself to get in touch with his inner self, separate from other influences.

Let’s face it: the world has become a strange place. Things have changed in radical ways. The 2020 COVID epidemic left a mark on the larger society. In general, people have become less optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, technology has rapidly advanced in ways that separate one from actual human contact. This has been exacerbated by other factors (economic, transportation, environmental) and increased our feelings of estrangement from ourselves and others.

Futurists such as Amy Webb have noted the rapid changes happening during the past few years and expect this trend to continue in the near future. Moreland concurs with this analysis. Visitor begins pessimistically with the track “The Future Is Coming Fast”. Moreland quietly strums his guitar and sings, in contrast to his warning about what is happening. “The news keeps steady coming in / Our condition shows its teeth again / A nightmare we all thought would end / How far is it going to go / Do we really want to know.” In other words, continuing disasters are sure to follow. This is one reason why Moreland chose to isolate himself. Moreland belongs to that tradition of writers (Henry David Thoreau, William Butler Yeats) who temporarily recuse themselves in search of meaning.

John Moreland is no philosopher. He makes art out of his awareness. The dozen songs on Visitor address the tensions between public realities and personal concerns. Sometimes, the singer-songwriter can’t help but realize the futility of his efforts. “The More You Say, the Less It Means”, he notes on the song of that name. “Ain’t Much I Can Do About”, goes another. The solo acoustic guitar instrumental accompaniments on these songs reinforce the notion of powerlessness in an artful manner. The beauty of the strings being picked and strummed emerges from their gentleness, which paradoxically gives them strength. The person who can’t say what he means and can do nothing to improve things subtly does both through his muted singing and playing.

Even on the most pointed entry, “One Man Holds the World Hostage”, Moreland keeps things restrained. He describes former American President Donald Trump without saying his name. This implies that he is not alone. Society is full of flawed Trump-like characters who, out of their personal failures, make others suffer. Some people may make the world hell. The opposite is also true. Moreland is a romantic who sweetly croons, “Empires may fall / My love for you is everlasting.” This belief in love may be inconsistent with some of the other sentiments expressed, but Moreland’s more concerned with self-discovery than consistency. He feels what he feels more than he thinks what he thinks.

That makes the two instrumental interludes on Visitor the most profound ones. On “Sobo Interlude”, Moreland plays the mandolin along with the sound of waves hitting the beach. The “Bixhoma Interlude” features Moreland on fiddle. He recorded these songs out of the studio in natural settings during late-night drives. By not using words, the musician conveys the mystery of being present and interacting with the physical world.

John Moreland recorded Visitor in ten days. The songs’ topics may vary from the “Gentle Violence” people do to each other to the beauty of nature in “Blue Dream Carolina”, not to mention their emotional range from individual problems to more significant technological and environmental concerns. The tunes share a consistent tone after being filtered through his creative consciousness.

The singer-songwriter saves the title track for last. John Moreland declares he is the “Visitor” who doesn’t feel at home on Earth. The musician is aware of the irony of having to be alone to discover he needed others—or at least one other—to belong. Moreland’s gift to listeners is rooted in his alienation. We visit his world as a way to find ourselves.

RATING 8 / 10