In making the last two years’ end of year lists, it has occurred to me each time that many of the albums I laud are being lauded by me, at least in terms of this blog, for the first time, usually because I’ve written about them elsewhere. So, in a slightly lazy, BUT ALSO PRODUCTIVE AND INFORMATIVE attempt to rectify that, I’m going to start putting up reviews of albums I really like here, after they’ve gone up where they’re supposed to be. To begin with, here’s my review of my favourite album of the year so far, Josh T. Pearson’s spectacular Last of the Country Gentlemen, first published on This Is Fake DIY*:
In today’s fast food music culture, where artists are lauded for quick turnover, surprise releases and pre-sale downloads, it’s rare to see someone taking real time over their music – especially when it’s been quite as long in coming as Josh T. Pearson’s debut album. His first band, Lift To Experience, took five years to release their own debut, 2001’s hugely acclaimed The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads whose Biblical-scale shoegaze impressed the late John Peel so much that he invited them into session no less than three times in five months. But within the same year, Pearson had disbanded the group, and has waited ten years to produce his next full-length record, this time with a far more muted, country-folk aesthetic at its core. It’s a staggering amount of time to take over a single album (and if reports are to be believed, many of the tracks included have been around in one form or another for much of that ten years) but in listening to Last of the Country Gentlemen, it quickly becomes clear that Pearson was made to take his time.
With four of its seven tracks clocking in at over ten minutes long, this album refuses to be hurried, as songs softly mutate and repeat throughout, with guitar sequences reappearing as if they’d never gone at all. Amongst his many obvious musical gifts, Pearson’s greatest is in carrying the listener along, alternating between almost unbearably honest lyrical work and deceptively simple yet rewarding instrumental passages, replete with acoustic guitar that ranges from the most softly plucked to almost devastatingly attacked, often within moments of each other. It’s this ability to manipulate his music, and the listener’s perception of it, which makes Pearson’s debut album quite as phenomenal as it undoubtedly is.
From the tumbling guitar sweeps of opener ‘Thou Art Loosed’, Pearson has you in the palm of his hand for the whole of the next sixty-odd minutes, striving to hear every new strain of the country fiddles that intermittently haunt the whole piece, each change in tone and every stricken lyric. It’s these lyrics that become the most compelling facet though, a tumultuous look into a cracking psyche that’s spilling forth every thought, light or dark, no matter whether or not it seems right or wrong to do so. From tales – and these truly are tales – of the anguish of extra-marital love (in the exquisitely-named ‘Honeymoon is Great, I Wish You Were Her’), alcoholism (“Honestly, why can’t you just let it be, and let me quietly drink myself to sleep” – ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’) and ‘Sorry With A Song’s epic apology letter from a man who always repeats his mistakes, despite his wish not to, each song is a journey through the mind of someone who can’t help but reveal his secrets, even if he doesn’t want to – he himself sings “Don’t ask me what I’m thinking”, and in the circumstances, it seems like a plea, not a warning.
Every song is confessional and almost uncomfortably intimate, like reading someone else’s mail, and it makes for a listening experience that hasn’t been quite so powerfully manifested since the likes of Kid A – this is an album of such profound power and darkness that it becomes hard to listen to, but becomes harder and harder not to throughout. It’s the brief moments of relief that the listener finds themselves clinging to then, relatively short snatches of respite where there appears to be light behind the dark clouds conjured by the rest of the album. Pearson’s whispered admission that “I know it don’t make it right, singing a simple lullaby, but please accept my sorry with a song” is followed by a blissful period of tempered, skipping guitar that never sounds quite upbeat, but holds a sense of respite somewhere within, finally allowing for a moment to breathe and let it all make sense.
After all of this focus on lyrics, it seems fitting then that Last of the Country Gentlemen can be summed up in its first lines: “Don’t cry for me baby, you’ll learn to live without me/Don’t cry for me baby, I’ll learn to live without you” – the competition between desperate sorrow and ultimate release is never resolved. It’s never clear if the album is one of catharsis or self-immolation for Pearson, and it’s in this indecision that the truth of the work is revealed. The lack of any concrete resolution reflects the endless back-and-forth of a mind wracked by guilt, despair and temptation that equally wants to let go and be at peace and in presenting this, Josh T. Pearson has created an album of genuinely breathtaking emotional heft, and one that dwarfs the ambitions of the many others that have tried to achieve much the same thing in the ten years it took to reach us. Astounding.
*I originally gave this a 10/10 by the way, not sure why that was changed.