Tuesday, 31 May 2011
World Without End - Bob Frank And John Murry
Hands down this is the most maudlin album I own. I own records by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Drake and nearly everything Mark Kozelek has ever released but this is the darkest of the lot. It's not subtle about it either. Not the most ringing endorsement, but depressing, sad music is not a bad thing. There have been sad songs since the dawn of music. Sadness is an emotion and what is music but a way of expressing emotions? Just because something is upsetting doesn't make it any less valid than something uplifting and happy.
The albums premise is a simple but grisly one. Each track recounts a murder, most of them based on true stories. The tracks take their name from the victim or perpetrator of each killing (with the exception of Tupelo, Mississippi) along with the year of the death in question. Murder ballads are nothing new to country music. The genre has a long tradition of songs about death in its many forms. The thing that makes this album so special is that not only are they new songs, instead of ones culled from the big book of murder ballads, but they are genuinely eerie.
Little Wiley Harpe, 1803 is a perfect introduction to the album. The sparse, creepy instrumentation and mumbled vocals are almost too eerie. With subject matter like this though it's hard to think what other direction the music could go in. It's one of the more gruesome songs on an album that usually aims for general imagery rather than gory details. But despite its descriptions of decapitation and evisceration it doesn't rely on shock value to make itself effective.
There are few songs that have hit me as strongly as Boss Weatherford, 1933 did on first listen. Its shimmering, subdued sound, its plodding melancholy pace and its wonderfully descriptive, dark lyrics. The whole song is from the point of view of a man, being lead to the noose to be hanged. He describes the crime he committed and explains why. In the chorus he reveals he is resigned to his fate “lead me down boys, Im hanging today, drop the trap door I' got nothin' to say”. He finally thanks his executioners, glad to have it all over and done with. The music behind the lyrics is just as atmospheric. The guitars are sparsely strummed and the cymbals are left to ring out. Theres no sense of urgency or attack. Every chord, every note is left to run its natural course. The reverb on the strings give them an eerie, distant sound as if something is threatening from a distance. The whole song is the sound of a man taking his time on his way to a death he knows is coming, savouring what few moments he has left and letting each note run its natural course.
For Bubba Rose, 1961 the tone is a bit lighter. A real country affair with plenty of lap steel and acoustic guitars, the song tells the story of a disgruntled worker who for some unexplained reason, shoots his boss in the chest with a shotgun. Its told as an anecdote and the lyrics actually have the feel of small town gossip to them, with each step of Bubba's day laid out in chronological order. It's these little touches that make this album so great. Instead of going for shock, it captures a sense of atmosphere for each song.
Each song has a different feel with all of them retaining the mournful tone. Madeline, 1796 has a creepy, demented circus sound to it as it describes the affair between a young woman and a married man that ends with her being bricked up in a wall by the mans wife. The next song however has a much sparser feel to it. Slide guitar and acoustic guitar are the only instruments at the start, building into a bigger, more dramatic sound with strings and timpani. Its these differences between tracks that keep you guessing as a listener and keep the album interesting.
The album can be hard going if you are not in the right mood for it. As I said before, it's incredibly dark and listening to the whole thing in one go can be difficult. The darkness of the album is, all at once, its most important and off putting quality. These songs all deal with a depressing subject and there are very few ways of writing songs about murder and pain without making them sound a certain way. The descriptive narrative of the lyrics give each song a strong imagery. This record is as much a collection of well told stories as it is a collection of well written songs. If you are in the mood for something light and easy going, you're probably better off listening to something else. But if you are in the mood for an intelligent, brilliantly arranged and challenging album then you cant go wrong with World Without End.