I’m not entirely sure if this means that I can’t make my mind up, or that I can’t count, as this technically makes the whole malarkey a Top 51. Then again, even before I started to compile this list I knew that these would be top of the pile, and as I was further listening to all of the records in this list and beyond to try to find some sort of pathway through it all, it became harder and harder to separate them. So, in the end, I didn’t bother. Because not only was it ultimately pointless to try to convince myself that one was better than the other, the two records could almost be brothers – not twins, as the differences are just as great between them as the similarities that bind them, but each fits with the other so well that it’s now difficult for me to listen to one without the other. So, it’s far from an annoyance for me that I can’t pick between them, it’s more of a joy.
To get the differences out of the way first and foremost: I’ve probably played Richard’s album more often than anything else released this year; Josh’s is amongst the fewest-played. One record goes for a series of short tales, the other chooses a smaller amount of huge confessionals. One’s approach to songwriting and performance is steeped in many decades of tradition, imagery and storytelling, the other is from nowhere other than one man’s life and experiences. The Wayfarer picks its journey around the various Circles as if Danté was writing a Lonely Planet guidebook with David Lynch taking the photos, done with a certain knowing, vigour and occasional righteous anger. The Last of the Country Gentlemen picks out one specific spot in the swirling abyss and invites you to sit and listen. Both are equally compelling.
It’s probably not unfair to describe Josh T Pearson’s solo debut, released some ten years after his last record as part of Lift to Experience, as harrowing. Josh picks at the threads of his own being, unravelling his awful truths and misdeeds and laying them out in front of the listener as if to say “Look at these. You have them within you also”. There are tales of threatened violence, infidelity and sorrow in here, and these aren’t distant recollections softened by years of reparation and repentance; they are raw demons plucked whole, the entire album seemingly acting as the start rather than the end of a long healing process. There is certainly an incredible amount of beauty here in amongst the horror, Josh’s own voice wrapping itself around his otherworldly guitar accompaniment, carrying each song upwards and putting the beginnings of a redemptive distance between him and his lyrics.
There’s humour to be found in amongst his recollections, although naturally it’s fairly dark – Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her makes good use of an exclamation point and missing letter “e” to comedic effect, taking some of the edge off his musings on spending his first days of marriage with someone while pining for another, and Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ adds some odd but apt holiday imagery (“It’s ain’t Christmas time it’s Easter, Honey Bunny”) before flinging a couple of Simon and Garfunkel songs into the mix. These are jokes told through gritted teeth however (“It’d be kinda funny, Honey, if it weren’t so damn true”) and the comfort is cold.
These however are not the songs of someone who has given up. There is a glint and drive in is voice that, no matter how dark the passages are that his words take him, he genuinely sounds as if he is lighting his way forward and willing himself to do so. Hopefully the success that Last of the Country Gentlemen is bringing him and the growing number of people supporting him (and, judging from the shows that I’ve seen this year, happily willing him onward and upward like the little Clarences we are) is lightening his spirit. A singularly incredible record, as much as I love it I hope he never feels that he has to make another one quite like it, and that the next one will be soaring.
Richard Warren’s second solo album under his own name, sounds for all its “recorded on a 2-track tape recorder in a 9x9ft cellar” simplicity as if it was formed in every hellish bar at the end of every line in the US. The depictions here are snapshots of lives in various stages of descent and redemption, variously being on the receiving end of it (Through the Fire’s plea from a damned soul for one last night of sin), doling it out (the epic title track wreaks divine retribution on a Government that has failed its people) or just generally being on the journey either way and enjoying the ride (the heart-pounding Lonesome Singer in the Apocalypse Band). Influences are many and varied, yet shaped so that each song fits in with the rest of the record to form a cohesive whole, and it’s obvious that Richard is revelling in this current direction, such is the relish that he displays in each story and situation.
The main ingredient here seems to be volume, and plenty of it. Reverb and a general “pick everything up” approach to recording serves The Wayfarer well, giving the atmosphere a lonely quality at the same time as giving the impression of each element fighting for domination over the others, which can only be a good thing as it’s a record that begs to be played loudly and often. Indeed, Lonesome Singer…‘s brassy crescendo is as fine a stirring, chaotic call to arms as can be found anywhere else. On the subject of chaos, the ire of The Wayfarer itself almost unhinges itself in its final act, the realism of the Class Politicking being taken over by fire and brimstone condemnation in the form of blackbirds and a demoniacal brass band playing us all down.
A further sense of the dramatic sees us out of the record on the last two tracks; insect chirrups place ghost story The Willow in its oppressively humid home, where the closing lament of Ragged and Broken plays out like a broken 78 in an empty room, such is the fate of its lonely protagonist. Solitude is certainly something that has helped shape the Wayfarer, and the way that it has been written, performed and produced certainly helps to feed that notion throughout, so I hope that this current direction for someone who has explored more than a couple of musical avenues during his career to date is something that he explores and shares further, as it’s interesting, exciting and unsettling in equal measure.
And so that’s me done with this list for another year. It’s been at points a pleasure and a pain to write depending on various external forces, and its main reward has been “something to do until the insomnia sods off” for the most part. If anyone has read any of this: I hope you’ve in turn enjoyed it, disagreed with it wholeheartedly and felt incredibly aggrieved that I’ve missed a favourite of yours out, whilst including something that you’d happily see buried under a patio somewhere. Otherwise, there’s no fun in these things at all other than listening to this stuff in the first place, which has been an absolute joy throughout and I can’t wait to hear where every favourite band and artist will be going to go next with their ideas. I think I’m due a sleep now…