When Patterson Hood of The Drive-By Truckers describes you as “long one of my favourite songwriters, one of the absolute best of our generation” people are going to sit up and take notice and so it is that this album has already attracted a great deal of interest, even prior to its release. Hood produced the album and the Truckers provide the backing to Joseph’s songs further adding to the anticipation. So, who is Jerry Joseph, and does the album live up to expectations?
Some readers may have caught Jerry Joseph supporting Richmond Fontaine on their 2016 farewell tour. Other than that, he is something of an unknown in the UK. That’s perhaps a little surprising given that he released his first record in the States as far back as 1987 and has been doing so consistently ever since. A quick tally reveals ‘The Beautiful Madness’ to actually be his 29th album, but the first to get an official European release.
As the album unravels, what becomes clear is that Joseph is a lyricist. His words are carefully put together and range from the delicately literate to a more jump up and slap you in the face approach. The songs are musically diverse in terms of Hood’s arrangements, but the head Trucker always puts Joseph’s voice to the forefront thus showcasing the strength of his songs. Joseph’s words can occasionally be slightly mysterious and impenetrable. The album’s opener ‘Days of Heaven’ refers to ‘A clutch of Bloodkin chords / the rain of El Sauzal’. On investigation Bloodkin turn out to be a southern rock band from Georgia and El Sauzal a town on Tenerife. To get the most from Joseph’s work, you may have to delve deeper than with many other artists – ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ it is not. However, it is a record where investing some time and effort pays real dividends as Joseph’s angry, contemptuous and sometimes resigned view of the world, life and politics is laid bare.
Among the albums many highlights is ‘Good’, a song that reflects on some of the world’s ills, whether it be social media, “we have ten thousand friends, not one can hold our hand, instant information, no one can understand”, politicians, “The world is run by fools, they’re evil to the core, they fuck each other down, ‘til they’re all raw and sore” and social attitudes, “We’re scared of immigrants, and Nazi Jesus freaks, We’re calmed by medicines till we can’t even speak”. Joseph despairs at a lack of outrage “Now we’re on our own, nobody gives a damn, facing a rising storm, nobody takes a stand”. The song ends with a message of hope though, “You said you’re seeking something bigger, I think you should, it’s up to us now to deliver, and make it good”.
‘Black Star Line’ is Joseph’s tribute to David Bowie and the importance of the glam/art rocker to him whilst growing up. It is both touching and revealing and something that many listeners will be able to relate to, whoever their own personal heroes were, “Unsure hated my school, his cure, break the rules, who knows where elephants die? Star Man waving in the sky”. Despite the quality of these songs and the rest of the album, it is really dominated by two songs, ‘Dead Confederate’ which features Jason Isbell on slide guitar (incidentally, the first time that has recorded with the Truckers since he left them in 2007) and the colossal ‘Sugar Smacks’.
‘Dead Confederate’ as a song is actually four years old but has become particularly pertinent in the light of events this summer. The song is written from the point of view of an 80-year-old Confederate statue that is being removed. By approaching it in this way Joseph highlights the untenable nature of any preservation argument, “Jesus was a white man and he promised we could rule, so we burn his holy cross in honour, hang the negro and the fool”. The song is hugely powerful, contemporary and superbly crafted. The only trouble with irony though, is that racists and bigots tend not to get it. Jerry Joseph spoke about this in his recent interview with AUK’s Martin Johnson.
‘Sugar Smacks’ is hard-hitting. Patterson Hood described it as the best punk song he’d heard in 20 years. As a reformed drug addict, Joseph gives his perspective on a world and reflects that “They said clean would make it better but I miss being filthy and the cover it provides” Joseph sees a world where people are abandoned by their leaders and where perspective and proportionality is often lost: “Me too she said, Isis slavery and genital mutilation, now we’re here in a permanent cinder refugee camp, reading about sexual harassment on the executive level at a Portland advertising agency”. Joseph is clearly not trivialising the latter but rather asking why when those issues have rightly gained prominence, the plight of women in other parts of the world is not being equally recognised. Joseph again turns his fire on politicians, “Everybody has a reason to march, but the fascists in the White House only laugh and pull another trigger” and berates the state of modern music. As part of a generation that has found both escape and inspiration alike through music, Joseph asserts that “Very little I hear these days has any fucking soul” and “There’s a jam band covering another version of The Weight, with mandolins and pretty girls with washboards…Lakota Sioux medicine songs sung by Rocky Mountain white kids, thirty different bands playing from the Grateful Dead book”
By the time that ‘Eureka’, the album’s final track, draws to its conclusion, it is quite clear that Patterson Hood’s words that opened this review, cannot be dismissed as hyperbole, exaggeration or cronyism, as any healthily cynical reader might suspect. ‘The Beautiful Madness’ is not just a very good album; it is an exceptional one. It grows with each listen as its complexities begin to decipher. Although it is clearly an album for the times, it also evidences a quality of songwriting that will see it endure beyond them.