Debut album from literate American wordsmith.
Having first engaged in seriously learning the guitar in 1996, a full 25 years went by before the arrival of ‘Buyer’s Remorse’, Justin Baker’s debut album. He describes a pivotal moment of writing a song in 2013 when his wife was pregnant with their first child, and found that “he lingered in the tower of song and kept writing. One song bred two more...” That’s a not overly subtle reference to Leonard Cohen, and Baker himself is clearly a fan, as well as being a long-time teacher of literature at a Baltimore High School. So it is unsurprising that what he has delivered is a set of songs with highly literate lyrics, wrapped in music whose primary purpose is to serve the words. This is no bad thing; most artists of whatever persuasion have their strengths, and the key to success is generally to accentuate those, rather than trying to reach for being a master of all trades. Take Cohen himself – his strength, his superpower, was the way he worked and turned his words until beauty, tragedy, comedy, hope, despair, and more, shone through with precision and poetry that was ultimately irresistible to those who fell under his spell. However, if you were looking for music to dance the night away, or a voice to soar into the heavens, then Leonard wasn’t really your man.
Saying that, there are some lovely musical moments in Baker’s collection; opening track ‘Of Gods and Men’ has a stately, almost elegiac rhythm that is a tribute to producer J Seger. ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ dresses gothic noir storytelling in a suitably spare and gripping musical vignette, guitars twanging like a feeling of impending doom in a spaghetti western. The slightly cajun feel of the accordion on ‘Sometimes Isn’t Always (and Good Advice is Hard to Take)’ is a welcome musical diversion.
So, to the words. The most obvious thing is that Baker is a man who loves words; he clearly cares deeply about his art, and has spent time crafting lyrics that are carefully chosen and articulate. There are really no mis-steps, there is no clumsiness or accidental obtuseness, plenty of allegory and allusion. It may be entirely unfair to expect even more from the writing, but it does feel like there is a considered approach that sometimes leaves the listener wanting something that sounds a little more spontaneous, a simple joy or fear or anger at the world; something that doesn’t sound as if Baker hasn’t spent long hours examining it from each angle first. There is always space for poetry, but you really hit gold when it doesn’t sound like you’re trying too hard.
‘Ourboros’ is perhaps one of the most successful pieces on the record, throttling back on the production, with a lighter touch that benefits the song, and a lovely lilting minor-key melody, alongside some haunting female backing vocals. Baker writes ‘I tried to fit the world in a song’, and this actually feels a very intuitive note to himself.
Overall, this is interesting fayre, certainly with plenty of rich textures within, and Baker concludes his own bio with another Cohen quote, that there “are no rewards other than the work itself”. So it is hoped that he will push on and continue to invest himself in his creative endeavours, and that this ultimately satisfying debut is a stepping stone to even greater works to come.
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