March 21, 2011

Last of the Country Gentlemen

Josh T. Pearson (2011, Mute Records)
Last of the Country Gentlemen

In a previous life, Josh T. Pearson once sang “We sing these songs because we have to/Not because we want to.” He was the frontman of Lift To Experience back then, and he was referring to the band’s divinely appointed role as prophets of the End Times.

Lift To Experience is long gone now, the casualty of demons, drugs, and death, but that sentiment is alive and well on Last of the Country Gentlemen, Pearson’s solo debut. He’s no longer singing about the Apocalypse, though. Or rather, he’s singing about a different kind of apocalypse, something equally traumatic: the pain, regret, and turmoil of a failed relationship. Pearson’s songs pull no punches as he chronicles all of the ugly, nasty, and shitty things that bring about a relationship’s end, and the no man’s land afterwards. Betrayal, infidelity, guilt, hatred, doubt… Last of the Country Gentlemen’s seven songs are full of them.

Not surprisingly, the album is a daunting, even exhausting listen, one made all the moreso by the fact that over half of its songs pass the ten-minute mark. Put simply, Pearson lets his songs sprawl, his acoustic guitar rough and loose while his sadsack voice gasps, rasps, whispers, and drawls lyrics as meandering as his melodies.

The sheer amount of emotional turmoil on display and the lyrics’ excessively confessional nature does seem a wee bit exhibitionistic, even narcissistic at times. But then you hear the catch in Pearson’s voice on “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ” as he quietly sings, accompanied by an acoustic guitar that sounds like its strings are this close to snapping:

You don’t need a lover or a friend
You need a god and not a mortal man
Woman you need born again, again
You need a Saviour and I just am not him

Then there’s the way that “Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell” — which begins as something akin to a clichéd country ballad — grows increasingly weighed down by resignation until you imagine Pearson barely holding himself together in the studio, held up only by Warren Ellis’ gloriously mournful violin:

Honestly, why can’t you just let it be
And let me quietly drink myself to sleep
Honestly, it’s not what it appears to be
But only memories that ain’t got shit to do with you

Woman when I’ve raised hell, heaven knows you’re gonna know it
There won’t be a shadow of doubt in your bright little mind
No pictures left hangin’, only lonely unpainted nails
Ah honey you’ll connect those dots, read the writin’ on the walls

During those moments, and others — e.g., the bitter ode to infidelity that is “Honeymoon’s Great! I Wish You Were Her”, “Country Dumb”’s tribute to a failed and broken history — Last of the Country Gentlemen becomes a compelling, captivating listen. It’s also a sloppy one. Pearson’s voice and guitar are often ramshackle at best: he never once achieves the victorious tone of his Lift To Experience days, but rather, sounds like a man who has spent one too many nights holed up with nothing but cigarettes, whiskey, and regret to keep him company. But given the emotional content that Pearson is bearing, and the demons he’s exorcising, the sloppiness is fitting. Anything remotely slicker and more polished would cause the sadness to ring false.

There’s something deeply true and universal about honest sad songs. Heartache, pain, suffering — these often feel more universal than joy and happiness, given our sad, broken state of mortal affairs. As George Herbert wrote, “I cried the day I was born and every day shows why.” It was heartache that caused Pearson to write these songs and a shared sense of heartache that caused him to record and release them. As Pearson describes it:

I wrote these songs right [when] everything within them was happening, singing from my own perspective and played them live on the Dirty Three tour because I thought it would [be] good for me, as therapy, as something cathartic. I wouldn’t have thought of putting them out as a record, but two tough Irish blokes came up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes, moved by the songs... They were just strangers off the street, they didn’t know who the fuck I was, but they were crying... they came up and said “Thank you”, and let me know how moved by the music they were. And that’s when I thought that maybe it might be important to set aside my own personal feelings and put these songs out there.

It’s been ten years since the halcyon days of Lift To Experience, and if everything surrounding the band’s demise and the ensuing years is to be believed, than Pearson has well nigh been through hell in order to make this record. And it shows in every arresting, over-emoted, tear-jerking, meandering, heart-wrenchingly honest moment that makes up Last of the Country Gentlemen.

I’d say that this album marks Pearson’s triumphant return, but there’s nothing remotely triumphant within its songs. Which is precisely why Last of the Country Gentlemen is so dang good.