Friday, June 12, 2015

Matthew Perryman Jones - Land of the Living Review

I was first introduced to Matthew Perryman Jones's music in the summer of 2012, when he gave away his CD Land of the Living on Noisetrade. I wasn't overwhelmed - it was a slow-burn kind of album, and snuck up on me all through the long drowsy summer months. It took about two years for me to understand it was the best album I'd ever heard.

I'm glad I stuck with it, because while Land of the Living doesn't easily surrender its secrets - it does have them, and they are worth pursuing. The album is book-ended by songs which allude to the crossing of the Jordan and fall of the walls of Jericho. Stones From the Riverbed is vaguely a story of baptism, one must relinquish sin and darkness and "Fall into that mystery / or it will pull you under / It's okay to say goodbye."

The eight intervening songs deal more or less with the same themes. Poisoning the Well confronts corruption in high places, Won't Let You Down Again is to a friend or lover enslaved: "You’re still dancing with the bottle / trying to break your reckless ways / but you never stop / Every night you try to blame yourself / for someone that you’re not."

Then my favorite song of the album, a lyrical, broody confession written from the perspective of Vincent Van Gogh: O Theo. It's a tale of utter spiritual desolation. Vincent was famously unbalanced, but his brother, Theo, supported him through it all - both emotionally and financially. It's through Theo we know much about Vincent - he kept all his brother's letters. (Incidentally, Theo's great-grandson was the other Theo Van Gogh - the Dutchman gunned down in the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist.) O Theo is a lovely, despairing cri de coeur, dealing with universal meaninglessness and sehnsucht (a sort of existential homesickness), full of images drawn from Vincent's paintings: "Under the silence of water, into a sky full of birds"..."I set fires of starlight." In short, Don Maclean has been dethroned as writer of the best Vincent song.

Sleeping With a Strange (misleading title, that), is the gentlest song so far, and once again deals with loneliness. It's a warm-up for the rousing Waking Up the Dead. Again, imagery evoking baptism and an unwillingness to commit, to let go. The latter sentiment is reinforced by Keep It On the Inside.

Land of the Living is an album which always takes place in dim light or heavy shadow. There's nothing remotely sunny about these songs. Canción de la Noche epitomizes this dark mood - a vision of a relationship in glimpses and muttered phrases, painful glances and heartfelt pleas. “Pull me close, and I will push you away” he says, then “I’m begging you to hold me / Hold me, and I will stay.” It ends on this note of conflict, which leads up to a song which provides the first hints of hope (which will be spelled out grandly in the finale).

In some ways, this album is an exorcism (it is haunted throughout by ghostly voices, and was recorded in a haunted house) - sin, guilt, inadequacy, the dead themselves. In The Angels Were Singing Jones comes to terms with the death of his father. The vulnerable, gentle resolution forms a release from the angst of earlier songs and leaves us restful before the dawning of the album's glorious climax: Land of the Living.

Then grieving gives way to resurrection in all its glory. As in the beginning, he calls for the listener to fall into the mystery, but to also surrender one's entire being: "No, you cannot love in moderation / You're dancing with a dead man's bones / Lay your soul on the threshing floor." Relinquish pretenses - "shed this masquerade" - and come home, the Promised Land awaits. Death is overturned, "the darkness will soon disappear / and be swallowed by the sun."

Now that's how you end an album.


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