Clever, well-composed lyrics prove years of studying the written word were very well spent.
“He opened the apartment door / New paint smells like old regrets,” sings Justin Baker against an acoustic guitar on ‘Starting Over’, the opening track to his latest release ‘Ornamental Monsters’; they’re the kind of first lines you could only expect from someone who has studied not just the craft of songwriting, but also wider poetry and prose, something that’s undoubtedly true for the Marylander given his day job is as a high school English teacher.
‘Blockader’s Prayer’ is a murder ballad that has bluegrass running through its veins with some perfectly executed and rich harmonies that lift Baker’s vocals; although here and throughout, his voice is a touch gruff in its rawness, but there’s a sense of unguarded vulnerability that shows through and helps his words land with extra impact. The second murder ballad on the album is the fittingly bluesy ‘Death Row Blues’ where we find an man reflecting on the crimes that put him in the unenviable position of being a death row inmate: “Went and got me a pistol, took a midnight prowl / Set off to find the man that took her and get her back anywhichhow.”
‘Hermès Scarf’ is a 70s Bowie-esque pop-rock song about the darker sides of love that creep into the everyday: “You trip and slur your way upon the truth / Roll that rock up the hill, and do it all again / You recite our grocery list like a hymn: / Milk, some eggs, and goldfish for the kids”. ‘Multiverse’ is the most experimental of all the tracks, in a way that largely works, the strings and choruses of vocals almost slipping into psychedelia, but Baker’s lyrics as he dreams of other lives offer a grounding presence: “In another universe I’m / Hopping trains and heading West / I’m bound for some great quest I’m / All and nothing less.”
“Somebody played a classic country song, and I / Remember when a song was something / I could fix my faith to,” Baker complains on ‘On the Rocks’, a smooth and seductive song that conjures up images of an evening spent bending the ear of a bartender at a smokey club. Opening with a church-like organ, ‘Once More With Feeling’ sees Baker wrestle with the meaning of it all and sampling a large chunk of dialogue by the philosopher Bertrand Russell that begins: “The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.”
“Look, my hands still bear the marks / From years of hewing wood and bark / I’ve worked my fingers to the bone / Without a single thing to show,” Baker laments of working hard with nothing to show for it on ‘Ninth Hour’, and it’s a sentiment that feels apt for so many smaller artists like Baker today in the music industry, but he can perhaps take comfort in the fact that the lyrics he is producing are up there with some of the best songwriters – and if he’s fortunate, he might one day get rewarded with the kudos he deserves.