Four years in the making, Jon Dee Graham’s latest reflects on death experience.
The title of Jon Dee Graham’s latest ‘Only Dead For A Little While’ refers to his experience in 2019 when, after suffering a cardiac arrest following a show in Chicago, Graham was dead for several minutes before being revived in the ICU. Three days later he was well enough to post “I was only dead for a little while” on his Facebook page.
Graham’s mind has been on the subject of death since and this shows up in several of the songs, written and selected, that make up his latest record. Recorded in Austin, TX, Graham calls on the services of son William (guitar, vocals), the Fighting Cocks (Michael Hardwick on guitars, Joey Shuffield on drums, Andrew Duplantis on bass and vocals) plus ex-Fighting Cock John Chipman (drums, vocals) and a number of Austin session players and singers.
Opener ‘Where It All Went Wrong’ rocks in on a choppy guitar riff and strong drum beat. Graham sings about the turns on the evolutionary road trying to identify where the process went off track. A fuzzy guitar populates the break before he returns to his theme. ‘By The Fire’ begins as a gentle country rock tune with a sweet guitar. The song has Graham ruminating on old friends including some who have gone and ends up reflecting on his own mortality. Underlying is a belief in afterlife, “see you by the fire when we arrive”.
The third track on the album ‘There’s A Ghost On The Train’ is another song dealing with death; this time as a presence and a journey moving in parallel to the real world. Like the train it rolls in, rolls along and rolls out again, mirroring the lyric. ‘Brought Me Here To You’ is a sweet country love song with soft accordion and pedal steel and warm backing vocals in the chorus.
The following tune, ‘Astronaut’ was written by Graham’s son, William. Starting with the astronaut of the title looking down from space it sees Graham Sr also contemplating “the invisible thread that runs between you and your father”. ‘Goin’ Back To Sweden’ is a Dylanesque blues in which Graham proposes going back to Sweden to get away from the mess at home. He sings “they call it Stockholm Syndrome for a reason….man, once you’ve been to Stockholm you don’t never ever want to leave”. We get another fine guitar break from Hardwick.
The record adopts a more serious tone with ‘Brave As Her (Marie Colvin)’. Co-written with his wife, Gretchen Harries and son William, Graham speaks the verses and sings the “I wish I was as brave as her” tribute to the late war correspondent. The song also turns its focus on the present: “they say that democracy dies in the dark, she sent us postcards trying to warn us”. The sombre mood prevails for a take on the Rev. Gary Davis ‘Death Ain’t Got No Mercy’ echoing earlier themes of the loss of friends. There’s a really good economical blues guitar solo part way through.
‘Lazarus’ is a swampy blues track with duelling guitars that sounds like it might extend out some way in a live show. And with that we reach the album’s final track ‘Lost In The Flood’ which opens with some sweet chords before dropping into a country rock groove and Graham cites stores, life moments and a series of touchstones that will be “lost in the flood”. It sounds like a riff on the transitory nature of life and rounds off the record nicely.
‘Only Dead For A Little While’ is a good collection of songs recorded or at least developed over a long period. Taken together they work well around the theme. It’s likely one of those records that will reveal extra layers on repeated plays as well as fluctuating favourite tracks.