Ghosts in the LP

Simon Joyner reflects on life and death on a stunning new double album.

Singer songwriter Simon Joyner would very much prefer that you listened to his new double album, Ghosts, as it was intended to be heard: Played on a record player.

Unlike other artists who over the past few years have made their recordings available on vinyl as a sort of kitschy gimmick or nod to a hipster scene that prefers analog over digital, Joyner wrote Ghosts, which comes out Aug. 14 on Sing! Eunuchs!, as four sides contained in a one gatefold sleeve, its dark themes ebbing and flowing from the dissonant chaos of Side One to depths of guilt, confusion and regret on Side Two to the grim, bleak darkness of Side Three to a deceptive pop relief on Side Four. The time it takes to get up and turn the record over gives listeners a brief respite between waves of desolation.

“There’s a lot of death on this record,” Joyner said. “Our guitarist, Mike Friedman, said that it was so heavy that he listened to the first record and then took a couple hours off before he listened to the second one.”

It’s hard to imagine listening to a digital version of Ghosts on an iPhone in shuffle mode while jogging, and stumbling across a song like the piano-and-guitar dirge “Swift River, Run” with its lines: “I’ve seen the levee burst / Seen fences devoured by the sun / Should the giant redwood burn / The ash will darken everyone.” Taken out of context sandwiched between, say, KC and the Sunshine Band and a Twin Shadows track, the slow, dismall song could seem almost comical. Taken in its proper place with the rest of the album, and it's sobering darkness before the dawn.

Is it too much to ask a generation of distracted iPod-slinging youth to listen to and experience all four sides of Ghosts in their entirety? “I don’t think so,” Joyner said Saturday over the phone.

“I really don’t appreciate what that convenient form of listening has done to the album as an album. It’s kind of ruined it in a lot of ways,” he said. “There’s been some damage done to the album as a work of art in the new media, but I think there will always be serious appreciators of music who want the whole experience and not just convenient and quick entertainment. But it’s always been comparatively few.”

Joyner said he created the song arc on Ghosts in an attempt to make the listeners feel like they’ve “been through something and come out on the other side, whatever it may be.”

“Especially with a double record, the middle can get really deep into it. The songs work in a way where you’re kind of getting through the mess of what’s being worked on thematically.”

Side One opens with “Vertigo,” a violent, psychedelic, psychotic blues song that's a crash of noise and fear. “(The song) announces some of the (album’s) themes: Escape and entrapment,” Joyner said. “Musically speaking, it sets the tone as far as the jagged, dissonant qualities of a band doing jagged, dissonant songs. It lets people know that this is going to be something different.”

“Different,” as in a change from Joyner’s usual style, though there’s nothing “usual” about a Simon Joyner album. Joyner began playing intelligent, personal coffee-shop-style folk back in early ‘90s, releasing his first cassette of songs, Umbilical Chords, when he was just 17. Since then, he’s recorded a dozen albums that range from the static folk of his landmark 1994 release The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll to the droll, bleak Heaven’s Gate (1995) to the afternoon balladry of ’99’s The Lousy Dance to the midnight acid blues of ’06’s Skeleton Blues to the somber beauty of ’09’s Out Into the Snow. Though the albums vary in their own ways, the common thread always has been -- and continues to be -- Joyner’s personal lyrics that provide dark and sometimes uncomfortable glimpses into the way he views life and death and all the stuff in between.

Ghosts continues those themes, but with more death than usual. It’s not so much a collection of eulogies as much as elegies to his own life and the lives of friends now gone. Side Two highlight, “Cotes Du Rhone,” for example, is about singer songwriter Vic Chesnutt, an old friend and musical influence who took his own life on Christmas Day 2009.

“I wrote (the song) in a Vic way, describing things in sort of a goofy, poetic way that I associate with him,” Joyner said. “I tried to write a Vic Chesnutt song about Vic Chesnutt’s death.”

The rock incantation “If It’s Alright With You (It’s Alright with Me),” which bridges Sides Two and Three, also is a tribute to Joyner’s friends who have passed. One verse, for example, repeats “If it’s alright with Jessica / It’s alright with me.” Joyner said he’d read a book about the Viet Nam War with a section about soldiers marching through the jungle chanting a similar recitation for their fallen comrades.

“It was a way of preparing themselves for death, trying to strengthen themselves for what’s going to happen,” Joyner said. “It got me thinking of the people I had lost over the last couple years and how it was weighing on me, and this idea of cataloging them as a way of respecting the dead. The more you deal with and interact with the difficult things in life, the better you will be in actually confronting these things. It’s not always a celebration.”

If it sounds depressing -- and it certainly can be -- there are plenty of breaks in the clouds, like the Side Four gem “If I Left Tomorrow,” which could be mistaken for a pop song. “It’s hopeful in its own way lyrically,” Joyner said. "It's saying even though this thing is probably going to end, it’s not just wasted time, we didn’t compromise anything.

“Sometimes a tornado will take a house and will leave a staircase, that’s a hopeful thing,” Joyner said, referencing a line from the song. “There are disasters and rough stuff we go through, but there’s usually some exit, something provided that allows you to make it through another day. And whether it’s in a relationship or just whatever various things that life presents, that’s where the hope comes through.”

Simon Joyner and his band will celebrate the release of Ghosts with Solid Goldberg, Lightning Bug and Sun Settings Friday, Aug. 3, at The Sydney, 5918 Maple St. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $5, or purchase the album for $20 at the venue and admission is free. For more information, call 402.932-9262 or visit thesydneybenson.com.

posted at 11:50 am
on Monday, July 30th, 2012

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