Idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and painter Joseph Arthur has always been an enigma to me. First, there’s his music: haunting and utterly nocturnal gravel-voiced hymns to desolation, lushly presented with eclectic beats, electronic loops and multiple tracks of his own voice. Most of this stuff is played by Arthur himself, both live and in the studio, and once you hear him, you’ll always recognize his new stuff.
What's more, Arthur is not just a high-tech one-man band -- he has always been something like a one-man record company. Not only does he make most of the music and write all of the lyrics, but he also comes up with the packaging and artwork, since he's also a painter. Joseph Arthur albums are Joseph Arthur albums in every mode of perception.
And then there's the wide gulf between his critical and commercial acclaim. Though he was discovered by Peter Gabriel and released three albums on that megastar's Real World label to the highest critical hosannas, mainstream success has eluded him.
Rhythm Room, 1815 Washington Avenue, 713-864-6962.
Friday, March 25. Polly Paulusma opens.
Not that he doesn't have his fans. First, there are those swooning critics: In 1997, a scribe at Alternative Press was moved enough by Arthur's full-length debut, Big City Secrets, to call him "one of the last true artists left in the world." In 2000, Arthur's sophomore album, Come to Where I'm From, was deemed the year's best CD by Entertainment Weekly. Two years ago, there came Redemption's Son, which London's Sunday Times intoned was "a classic" and caused even more hyperventilation at EW. New album Our Shadows Will Remain was one of last year's 25 top-rated albums at metacritic.com, a site that takes multiple reviews and grades albums on their average score.
And hell -- I'll chime in with some plaudits of my own. It's a great, smart pop-rock album, and if "Even Tho" isn't the greatest conjuring of the Fine Young Cannibals out there, then I've yet to hear it. "Echo Park" is both eerie and pretty at the same time, and elsewhere he conjures artists as diverse as Varnaline's Anders Parker and Edwyn Collins. As with his earlier records, his music has a strongly nocturnal feel; it's always capable of turning even the brightest noon into the darkest midnight.
But nobody loves Joseph Arthur the way Joseph Arthur loves himself. You might think that's a bad thing -- and rampant narcissism can be terrible. Look at Don Henley, for example, or Mariah Carey. But in this case I don't really think it is.
I had a talk with Arthur while he cruised through the streets of Portland in search of lunch a couple of weeks ago, and self-regard played no small part in our conversation, a partial transcript of which we'll get into in a little while.
But first, the basics. We opened our talk with some standard how's-the-tour-going banter, and I asked him about some of the things I've read about these shows. Will he be painting on stage here, as he has been doing in the Northwest? "We'll see," he said. And then we moved on to his place of abode -- he recently moved from New York to New Orleans, where, he said, "there's a strong energy that found its way into the music, my way." Most of this energy he absorbed from jukeboxes late at night in Big Easy bars like the Abbey, the recently closed-down Matador and Checkpoint Charlie's. "When you're making a record, you listen to music in a different way," he said. "I think it was healthy to listen to it like that. You go into bars with good jukeboxes and listen to songs loud and you hear what works."
The talk turned to food when he spotted a tempting restaurant in Portland called Garbanzo's Falafel Bar. He told the tour manager to stop. "Looks good to me," he said. "I'm into falafel." I asked if he's a vegetarian. "Pretty much," he said. "I'll eat fish. When I was in England I was in the countryside a lot working at Real World. I used to see a lot of cows, and now I can't imagine going up to one of them with a machete and hacking 'em down. But I don't think I would have much of a problem pulling a fish out of a stream and watching it flap to death. You know, that's how I kinda monitor it. Of course I wear leather boots, so I guess I'm kind of a hypocrite."
And then came The Review, and now we'll just have to go to the tape.
Houston Press: I read a review that predicted that you will have a big hit on your next album.
Joseph Arthur: Oh, really? Who said that?
HP: Oh, where was it? I'll look it up. It was a very bizarre review.
JA: That's kind of a bizarre thing to say -- that I'll have a hit on the album after this one.
HP: Yeah, there's weirder stuff than that in this review too -- this woman, I think it's a woman anyway, the person's name is Nick but they refer to a one-e fiancé, said they wouldn't listen to you because they thought you looked too much like Vincent Gallo.
JA: Oh, really? Could you read the whole thing to me? Do you mind?
HP: Uuhhh, sure, I guess.
(I found it at www.stylusmagazine.com/ review.php?ID=2672 and did so. I've read reviews to other bands before, but never at their own request. And the strangeness of both this review and this musician makes this the most surreal interview experience I've had outside of Aaron Neville's angelic voice reading me an anal-rape passage out of a prison diary a friend of his had written.)
HP: (Reading review) Some artists just have music in their soul. David Bowie doesn't seem to struggle with his albums. The man just has to sing lyrics and put some music behind it, he'll make it magic with the performance. Elvis Costello can churn out a classic song on command; while Bjork can find music in just about anything you give her. For these people it looks and feels effortless.
Others don't or, more accurately, can't. Ryan Adams comes to mind. Oasis is another obvious choice. Conor Oberst could fit into this category, as could Interpol, but they still have a chance to get out.
JA: Wow, she just dissed all the current people or whatever. That's wild shit.
HP: Yeah. (Continuing to read) Joseph Arthur lies somewhere in between these two talent-extremes and he could go in either direction.
JA: Ouch! (Laughs uproariously.) Okay
HP: When an artist wants desperately to be legendary, it becomes obvious in his product.
HP: For whatever reason, Joseph Arthur never appealed to me. Every time I heard his name or saw his picture, I would immediately think of Vincent Gallo. When I listened to his music, I could picture him singing into the microphone while wearing an old, tiny Yes T-shirt and a leopard print Speedo. Then there was his-
JA: That's funny, man, I'm wearing a fucking old, tight Yes T-shirt right now.
JA: I swear to God I am. My friend in L.A. gave it to me. How fuckin' nuts is that? That is nuts. That's nuts 'cause I just got this T-shirt too. But why is wearing a Yes T-shirt bad? Why does that nail my character for some reason?
HP: (Obsequiously) I have no idea.
JA: Go ahead.
HP: Then there was his artwork. His albums are decorated with self-composed drawings of enigmatic human figures and heads. They look like a combination of cave drawing and graffiti. Radiohead albums never looked this self-indulgent.
JA: (Chuckles bitterly.) Maa-aan.
(I read the rest of the review uninterrupted. It goes on to say how he won her over. The more I listened, the more the picture of Vincent Gallo in my head disappeared, like a Polaroid from Back to the Future. In place of Mr. Gallo's hairy ass, a talented singer-songwriter began to take shape, blurry at first, but clearer as the album wore on. If Arthur is careful, he'll be that legend he so desperately wants to be. And so on, on to that promise of a big hit next time around and a grade of 91 out of 100.)
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JA: Man, I feel slapped around. That's a funny review.
HP: But you gotta give her credit for the Yes shirt.
JA: You've got to, man. You know, whatever. There's truth in the review. If you're an artist, there's a certain amount of narcissism that just goes with it. You can't go out and do it unless you're somewhat narcissistic. Do you know what I mean? I don't think you can really be great without attempting to be great.
And Joseph Arthur most definitely does that. diosyncratic singer-songwriter and painter Joseph Arthur has always been an enigma to me. First, there's his music: haunting and utterly nocturnal gravel-voiced hymns to desolation, lushly presented with eclectic beats, electronic loops and multiple tracks of his own voice. Most of this stuff is played by Arthur himself, both live and in the studio, and once you hear him, you'll always recognize his new stuff.