Every Simon Joyner review written mentions Leonard Cohen, so the fact that the new compilation of Joyner’s scattered 1990s output shares its title with Cohen’s 1966 novel means either the critics are right or Joyner has a sense of humor about the comparisons. Probably both; although the Omaha-based singer-songwriter tends toward the bleak (“My family flunked the living test / They’re caught between cancer and cardiac arrest, he declares on the appropriately-titled “Sorrow Floats”), he’s not without a sly side (“You’re cutting off your head to spite your shoulders, he sings elsewhere). And what singer-songwriter hasn’t been impacted by Cohen? Those tea and oranges that come all the way from China certainly taught the young John Darnielle a thing or two about the deployment of specificity; Paul K.’s tales of bohemian gutters took a cue from Cohen’s own Chelsea Hotel adventures; and Franklin Bruno even begins an album with a character singing “So Long, Marianne”.
If Joyner follows a tradition, he walks in good company. And on the basis of Beautiful Losers and his other recorded output, he walks near the head of the pack; his phrasing and word-choice may occasionally invoke the spirit of the great Canadian poet-novelist-songwriter, but his voice is all his own. While later albums like Hotel Lives would rely on subdued sprawl to create the feeling of an entire world decaying between the walls of a flophouse in the downtown of some minor Midwestern metropolis, the early songs collected on Beautiful Losers instead reach for a startling immediacy, grasp it, and cling to it for dear life. These songs convey the experience of awakening on a bright morning in a dead city and desperately trying to make the sunlight come alive again. The characters may fail, but the songs all succeed.
Cohen comparisons aside, the first audible influence on Beautiful Losers is Woody Guthrie. The static tape hiss backing the folky guitar-plucking on “Love is Worth Suffering For” could be straight off Dust Bowl Ballads, though it instead belongs to another tradition: the 1990s lo-fi movement. Bands like Sebadoh, the Mountain Goats, and others used direct-to-four-track (or cassette tape) to create a more intimate sound, unmediated by the mechanical interventions of the studio. Speak what philosophical doubts you will regarding the ontological status of authenticity, but the ploy worked; when Joyner opens his mouth to ask, “Who cremated the morning and sprinkled it over my forehead, his voices carries a wavering, naked vulnerability that sounds utterly unforced — one trick among many his local protege Conor Oberst would pick up on.
The tracks on Beautiful Losers spring from various singles and compilation tracks, released on a series of obscure labels from three continents. Longtime Joyner associate Alex McManus has sequenced them into four suites (fit for the sides of a double vinyl version) that follow no chronological pattern and betray no evident narrative beyond opening and closing tracks that mention cicadas, but which nonetheless follow a stunningly effective emotional arc. In the first suite, the romantic suffering of the opening track gives way to “Fearful Man”, an understated depiction of the limitations of its subject’s small-town life, a topic Joyner manages to approach empathetically and without condescension, something his Bright Eyed understudy has yet to master. From there, “Robin Hood” and “Jeff Engel Rules” tackle politics; Guthrie himself would be impressed with the former song, a blue-collar rejoined to the famous re-distributor of wealth. The bitter narrator speaks of his own hard times in vivid terms (“the want ads cost me a dollar to buy, but the news wasn’t good enough to eat”) but shows a sophisticated understanding of liberal condescension from a benefactor whose gifts he’s all too willing to accept. The latter song tackles social relations in hierarchical societies with the same sharp grace (even citing Marx without slipping off into theoretical pedantry) and tuneful warble.
Other suites follow suit, veering from tender ballads (“Hot Tears”) to more brashly animated efforts — on “Milk”, Joyner is so breathlessly insistent that his guitar chords sound improvised on the spot in an attempt to keep pace with his urgent singing. Sporadic percussion pushes things in a more rocking direction (“R is for Riot” stomps along over a fascinatingly dulled thudding beat), but just as often Joyner goes it alone with his guitar, or nearly alone with a violin or pump organ in tow. The chords are fairly basic, the vocal melodies even more so, but virtuosity is not the goal here, any more than evoking the feeling of a Veteran’s Hospital (which Joyner does with surgical precision) is the agenda on an Yngwie Malmsteen album. In an extension of the folk tradition, words supersede melodies, which can be borrowed; a faint whiff of “Everybody’s Talkin'” blows throw “Fearful Man”, while closer “One for the Catholic Girls” spends six tight minutes recounting male ambivalence with the phenomenological rigor of Molly Bloom’s interior monologue, and it proves so engrossing that only on subsequent listens does the fact that parts are set to the tune of Frank Black’s “Headache” emerge.
The net effect of all this is an intensely affecting journey through a half-decade’s worth of accumulated sorrows and compromises. Joyner doesn’t go for big moments or calculated melodrama, instead exploring the emotional resonances of the mundane, everyday experiences that shape lives. In these songs can be heard the influences of Cohen and Guthrie, and also the genesis of several contemporary indie-rock troubadours whose fame have eclipsed Joyner’s undeservedly minor renown: not just the vocal mannerisms (minus the histrionics), self-destructive women and drunken brothers of Bright Eyes, but also the similar stylistic trappings of Okkervil River can be heard in Joyner’s ’90s output. Beautiful Losers performs a service for all: obsessive fans can stop trying to track down that lovely 1994 7″ split EP with the Mountain Goats (its other half being available on that band’s Protein Source for the Future Now!), while those who have yet to be exposed to the artist’s wares have a point of entry perhaps less daunting than the epic songs he would grow into over the years. Some would show us fear in a handful of dust, others freedom in a bird on the wire; Joyner gives us majesty in a flubbed chord and a single mic.