Classic Americana Albums: John Murry “The Graceless Age” (Bucketfull of Brains, 2012)

I owe a lot to Uncut magazine. In September 1998, the publication gave away a compilation CD called ‘Sounds of the New West’, which opened my eyes – and ears – to alt-country and Americana. A couple of years later, Uncut turned me on to Ryan Adams’s first album, ‘Heartbreaker’, now one of my favourite records of all time, and then in 2012 it published a review of John Murry’s ‘The Graceless Age’, calling it a “masterpiece.”

I immediately tracked down the album and, like ‘Heartbreaker’, it changed my life – I was attracted to its dark, self-destructive beauty. I’d been through some challenging and emotional times and could relate to it, in much the same way that ‘Heartbreaker’ affected me.

It’s also fair to say that ‘The Graceless Age’ changed Murry’s life too. He was an obscure US singer-songwriter who was raised in the Deep South, in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis, and had made an album of murder ballads, ‘World Without End’, with Memphis musician Bob Frank – but, all of a sudden, he found his debut solo record in Uncut, Mojo and The Guardian’s albums of the year lists and was being compared to similar tortured artists like Mark Lanegan and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous.

It could’ve easily been a completely different – and much more tragic – story. There’s a song on ‘The Graceless Age’ called ‘¿No Te De Ganas De Reir, Senor Malverde?’ in which Murry sings: “What keeps me alive is going to kill me in the end.” His disturbing prediction almost came true – he overdosed on heroin in San Francisco, on the corner of 16th and Mission, and was pronounced clinically dead for a few minutes, but came back to life.

His near-death experience is documented on the album in the harrowing, yet moving, ‘Little Colored Balloons’– a stunning, piano-led epic that clocks in at around 10 minutes, features a mournful cello line and Southern soul backing vocals. If you’ve ever seen Murry play live, you’ll know that it’s become his signature song. Sometimes it’s hard to watch him perform it, as it’s so intense and visceral – in the climax, he goes into a frenzied state on stage, as he relives his traumatic experience: “I took an ambulance ride – they said I should’ve died – right there on 16th and Mission.”

Another highlight of his shows – Murry is one of the edgiest, most brilliant, intense and unpredictable artists you’ll ever see in concert – is ‘The Ballad of The Pajama Kid’, the album’s anthemic opener, which hijacks the melody from Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and has an infectious “Do do do do do do do do do” vocal refrain.

Murry made ‘The Graceless Age’ with his musical mentor and co-producer, Tim Mooney, (American Music Club) who gives these confessional and intimate songs a warm, symphonic feel at times, but also creates unsettling moments –  the brooding psych-rock of ‘Southern Sky’ is a great example – and rich, sonic textures, with layered sounds, samples, snippets of conversations, lush string arrangements, keys, pedal steel and fuzzed-up guitars.

The album is shot through with drugs and death – on  the rumbling  ‘California’, Murry tells us: “I’ve beaten my brain with benzodiazepines,” while on ‘The Ballad of The Pajama Kid, “the air is filled with lead” and he sees the skies open up, “above a blood-red moon.”

On ‘Little Colored Balloons’, he is holding out his hands, which are “blood stained…red as Southern clay, blood-red as Mississippi clay.” Sadly, there was yet more disturbing stuff to come… Mooney died suddenly after the release of ‘The Graceless Age’, which deeply affected Murry and, along with the breakup of his marriage, knocked him off course.

For a while, it seemed like ‘The Graceless Age’ might be the only solo record that Murry might make [surely it’s long overdue a vinyl reissue?], but the follow-up, the raw, stripped-down and much looser ‘A Short History Of Decay’, eventually arrived, five years after its predecessor, and there’s a new album due out later this year. What didn’t kill him made him stronger.

Author: Sean Hannam

Freelance journalist, editor and presenter. Digs retro specs,The Smiths,Dylan,Cash,Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, country / Americana and '50s/'60s pop.

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