It has become de rigueur to immediately classify music released during this period of the worldwide pandemic as a quarantine record. Whether or not that is accurately the case for St. Paul & The Broken Bones‘ fourth full-length album, The Alien Coast or not may be beside the point. This wildly inventive and bold new album by the eight-piece soul band out of Birmingham, Alabama, is a musical phantasm for our times. Or, as the band puts it, “A fever dream in sonic form.”
In advance press for the new album, the band describes this new project’s musical departure and experimentation as a “…convergence of soul and psychedelia, stoner metal and funk.” Anyone dropping this album into their rotation expecting the smoky soul of Paul Janeway’s pleading vocals surrounded by the expressive horns that have become associated with St. Paul & The Broken Bones throwback to the Stax Records soul era will find The Alien Coast instantly jarring.
The album begins with simple, somber organ notes, hinting that “3000 AD Mass” might actually be a funeral mass. Janeway’s unique vocals tremble as he pleads in prayer to a potentially uninterested and disengaged deity. Twenty-five seconds in, and the music is already capturing the mood of the moment—pensive, ominous, unmoored. Janeway’s prayerful pleading quickly gives way to snarling demands to feel something in these times, even if it is pain. “Lord, sink your teeth so I can feel it in my spine/ the fire and the brimstone.” The synth organ sounds move from funeral dirge to the madness of a classic horror movie soundtrack, and a fuzzed guitar joins a more intense drum beat, matching our revving pulse in sync with the music.
Janeway points to the blurring of waking and dreaming, explaining the album’s concept in the advance press. “This album was birthed through the idea of falling asleep in a hotel and having a sequence of nightmares, the waking up and missing home so badly.” This is a magical mystery tour for the 21st century, a bad trip in disjointed, traumatic times. Here St. Paul of the Broken Bones joins the biblical St. John of Patmos in sharing apocalyptic visions as imaginative ways to engage declining empires.
“3000 AD Mass” is a 1:21 prelude into the menacing beat of “Bermejo and the Devil”, hissing with sinister whispers just below the rhythmic surface. Paul Janeway’s viewing at the National Gallery in London of the 15th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo’s arresting painting, “Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil”, inspired the song. The image itself is an arresting piece of Renaissance art, and it is ostensibly a religious work of the triumph of good over evil. Still, the attention is drawn away from the might of the armored knight and his massive blade to the terrifying depiction of the devil as something akin to a soul-devouring angler fish with poisonous snakes for appendages. In a 2019 Guardian article on Bermejo’s work, journalist Jonathan Jones remarks that “…we are drawn to extreme and troubled art that mirrors our fearful age.” The Alien Coast exudes the same gravitational force as a piece of music.
Barely able to catch a breath, the Spanish acoustic guitar that closes “Bermejo and the Devil” gives way to a brooding bass line of “Minotaur”, a continuation of St. Paul & the Broken Bones engagement with Spanish artists dealing with cultural decay and rising authoritarianism. This time it is Pablo Picasso’s use of the minotaur, a mythical creature that feeds off human flesh and is part human/part bull, prominent in Picasso’s paintings in the 1930s. A song about trauma and its lingering impact, “Minotaur” is, according to Janeway, “…about fearing something within you, and the loneliness that comes from that.”
Sonically alluding to the surreal, permeable boundaries between waking and dreams, “Atlas” is an instrumental interlude between “Minotaur” and “The Last Dance” with a sample loop that is reminiscent of an arcade video game soundtrack whose repetition gives way to a percussive cacophony. Without breaking the troubling dreamscapes, the album offers a counterpoint of hope within the nightmarish scenes in “The Last Dance”. With an infectious bass groove that has the disco feel of a 1970s TV show theme, the song opens with Janeway urging the listener to “Lose yourself in a song that doesn’t want to make you want to cry / God knows we need it right now.” If this is a continuation of the “Mass” that began the album, then this song is the call to worship, the counterargument in the face of the chaos.
The piece invites us to ride the “apocalyptic dance groove” at the song’s heart and, perhaps, at the heart of life as well. This piece of art being sketched out by the Birmingham group is ultimately an embrace of life rather than a defeatist surrender to the forces of chaos. In this way, The Alien Coast functions like the ancient practice of carnival where the open expression of joy and dance work to subvert and disarm the images of death-dealing apocalypse. The movement from “Minotaur” to “The Last Dance” through “Atlas” is a dizzying sonic journey traversing the echoes of trauma in conversation with a clear-eyed joy in a resistant groove that is the opposite of naive. It is an astonishing journey that is barely halfway through.
From start to finish, the album is a dizzying aural experience. There are faint hints of mission bells tolling at the beginning of “The Alien Coast”, alluding to the inspiration behind the album title. Paul Janeway’s reading of colonial-period historical accounts led to his discovery of the term “the alien coast” as the colonial invaders initially referred to the land on the Gulf of Mexico. The song’s content expands the impact of unwanted colonization to include the digital algorithms mining our intellectual resources to enslave us. Heady stuff, this album.
The resistant joy of the album amid the forces of chaos is grounded in the need for human connection. St. Paul & the Broken Bones tap the soul longings for love in the duo of tunes that close the album, “Popcorn Ceiling” and “Love Letter From a Red Roof Inn”. The spell of the nightmares is ultimately broken by a longing for love, the anchor in the nightmarish seas. Both songs move more closely to the soulful hopes in their previous works, offering potential tethers without complete resolution of the themes. When Janeway croons in the closing song that he is “just a fool who fell for you / Trying to just reach you how I can / But these waves won’t subside for me,” he’s giving expression to this hope, threatened but not extinguished.
This album is their first for ATO Records and the first album of their discography recorded in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Their immersion in the musical culture of their home extended to a partnership with Birmingham-based hip-hop artist Randall Turner who aided the band in experimentation with beat making and sampling within The Alien Coast. This combination of rootedness and bold expressiveness permeates the entire album. It is a jarring, inventive, exciting, and compelling album that deserves and rewards multiple listens. Its creativity and complexity sketch out innovative new paths for this band as they approach one decade of artistry together. If The Alien Coast is any indication, we are in for boundary-defying joy in the future.