It’s been five years since John Murry appeared set to build on the accolades garnered by his album, The Graceless Age, a sublime record which took the raw material of his unsettled life (and near death from an overdose) and turned it into art. It was not to be however as events conspired and he ended up, as he saw it, in exile in Ireland with only occasional forays into the limelight. A man haunted by his past and somewhat rudderless, he was still capable of turning in fine songs and remained a compelling live performer but The Graceless Age owed much to Murry’s co-producer, Tim Mooney, and Mooney’s sudden death as the album was released was just one hammer blow to Murry’s newfound stability. On A Short History Of Decay he appears to have found a replacement of sorts to Mooney in the form of Michael Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies, a fan of Murry’s but also a man able to corral his wayward genius.
Whereas The Graceless Age dressed Murry’s songs in arrangements that were sumptuous narcotic pillows of sound that swirled and beguiled the listener, Timmins strips back to the basics: guitar bass and drums with occasional keyboards allowing Murry’s voice and lyrics to dominate. There’s a sense of immediacy here. The album was recorded over the space of five days with little rehearsal with Murry meeting bassist Josh Finlayson and drummer Peter Timmins (bother of producer Michael) as they set up shop. His one touchstone in the studio was Cait O’Riordan who travelled from Ireland to provide vocals on several of the songs. At times raw and naked with fuzzed up garage band keyboards, distorted guitar and deadpan bass riffs recalling the likes of Lou Reed or Kevin Ayers, Timmins allows Murry to offer a fine approximation of his more recent live presentations, still intense and hypnotic. There’s no sheen here but the songs are peppered with sonic asides, a wayward organ here, a guitar hum there, that add to Murry’s intense lyrics and his Saturnine Southern voice.
The album opens with the delicate and brooding Silver Or Lead with glistening guitar and gentle shimmering percussion as Murry sings obliquely of his trials over the past years, his deep dark vocals only slightly offset by O’Riordan’s gentle cooing. This mood is shattered by the following Under A Darker Moon with an insistent guitar riff throughout and fuzzed up keyboards adding a garage band touch. The claustrophobic stabs of sound here are repeated in the bass riff and chunky rhythm guitar of Defacing Sunday Bulletins with Murry’s voice echoing as if he were singing into a void but for the remainder of the album the band are restrained, their occasional outbursts contained within fragile melodies which follow the template of the opening number.
Wrong Man has Murry’s acoustic guitar dominating over muted percussion and supple basslines until a plaintive organ wheezes into view midway through. It’s a superb performance, the sound perfectly balanced creating a gossamer like cushion for Murry’s tragedy as he beats a retreat from life singing, “There’s nowhere left to go, empty picture shows, I promised you my life but you were never home. And I know that I’m breaking down, I can feel it in my bones.” When God Walks In has some of the piano ballad majesty of The Graceless Age raising a head above the parapet but in the main it limps along with Murry’s guitar melting over a cadaverous rhythm, his voice reduced to aimless scatting towards the end. Come Five & Twenty is almost dance music in contrast as Murry lays down some medium paced acoustic guitar picking and the drums pick up and it’s tempting to see the song as a bridge of sorts between his past and his present, the opening lines, “Death rattled in the chest,” replaced towards the end as he sings, “Life is a gift, wear it ’till it fades.” Again, the song is a sonic wonder with O’Riordan echoing Murry’s vocals as subtle waves of organ and electric guitar weave in and out of the melody.
Murry takes time to opine on his current philosophical bent along with a glimpse into his black humour on One Day (You’ll Die) which is almost a pop song in comparison to much of the album. “I’ll remain nothing more than a misquote in history’s back pages” opens the song before he weighs into the recurring motif that we’re all hell-bent for the grave while his guitar plays a few bars from Born Free. He continues in this vein with the one other song here that bursts out with a rock thrust, Countess Lola’s Blues (All In This Together), which does come across a little like a Velvet Underground number with its fuzzed guitar and star spangled solo burst with O’Riordan cackling at the joke as the song ends.
Miss Magdalene is a song that has been kicking around for some time and again it’s set magnificently with a violin added to the mix as Murry gets all biblical, fusing tales of betrayal and the dichotomy of harlot/saint with his own tale of broken family and resurrection. He closes the album with a cover of What Jail Is Like (The Afghan Whigs) that lyrically again seems to relates to his own past and, like several of the songs here, is dank and dangerous as his guitar rumbles around amidst an intricate arrangement of percussion, bass and keyboards eventually fading into blackness. It’s not a comfortable listen but, then again, we wouldn’t really want it any other way.