“Accessible” is an adjective that, when applied to music, has a couple of connotations – either 1) a tuneful, good, easy listen or 2) thoughtless and ultimately fleeting. Then there are the records that require more active, patient listening. Veteran songwriter Jerry Joseph’s latest release, The Beautiful Madness, is one of those albums – it asks attention and work from the listener, but its complex songs reward that effort.
The recording of The Beautiful Madness required Joseph to temporarily separate from his longtime band, the Jackmormons. Instead, he hit the studio with producer Patterson Hood and the rest of Drive-By Truckers (dubbed “The Stiff Boys) as his backing band and 30 new songs to work from. Hood helped pare that list down to 10 long, dense tracks which straddle the worlds of country, rock, punk and whatever other music has existed during Joseph’s nearly six decades on the planet.
With all of that said, the record begins with its most traditional-sounding track, “Days of Heaven,” a DBT-meets-Bob Seeger tune (the first one recorded during the session, featuring co-writer Hood on backing vocals) about staying in one place, at least for a little while – “All the things that I have seen, I love this thing the most.” “Bone Towers” places the listener in the middle of a relationship, pondering where to go next – “All this self-reflecting can’t be good for the soul.” The title refers to unfinished skyscrapers abandoned after the fall of Baghdad, a view that Joseph took in while writing the song (several of the songs on the record were penned in unstable environs).
The track on the record that’s probably received the most attention is “Dead Confederate,” partially because it represents a DBT reunion of sorts, with Jason Isbell chipping in with some subtly gorgeous slide work. Even more notable, though, is the subject matter – a story told from the perspective of a Confederate statue about to be torn down. The message is clearly anti-”heritage,” but from the perspective of the narrator who’s silently witnessed decades of too-slow change – “Jim Crow benediction, ropes and hoods and local cheer” – with a defiance that’s all too real – “I never claim to think too deep, and I never said I understand.” Hood calls it, “one of the best songs about prejudice and racial hatred that I have ever heard,” and he’s right. On the topic of the Dirty South, it’s a very grown-up song that every kid should listen to.
“Sugar Smacks” is the other much-discussed track on the album. The intro is heavy, countered with a purposely disparate banjo line provided by DBT’s Mike Cooley. The song itself, Joseph says, was written in roughly 10 minutes, but it’s dense with references from all over our indefinable world, from White House fascists, digital porn, meth and fentanyl, much-mourned musicians and needless jam bands. Joseph even takes on his own past, citing a long-ago incident of domestic violence. It’s seven minutes of punk-flecked anger from a man who’s lived, seen, and done it all.
“Black Star Line,” the penultimate (and longest) track on the album, was written the night that David Bowie died, but it’s really more about a young Joseph reckoning with a changing world through his love for his favorite musician – “I dream, thirteen years old/The oil crisis and the FM radio/Bi-lines and eye liner.” The tune follows a piano line from Jay Gonzalez, brings in Kyleen King’s outstanding viola part, and all comes together with a fiery guitar solo from Joseph himself. Like the rest of The Beautiful Madness, there’s a lot going on, but this is the type or record that offers a little something new with each listen.
The Beautiful Madness was produced by Patterson Hood, engineered by Bronson Tew, mixed by Adam Lee and mastered by Greg Calbi. It was recorded at Dial Back Sound. All songs were written by Jerry Joseph, with co-writing credits going to Hood, Matt Patton, Jay Gonzalez and Brad Morgan. Additional musicians on the record include Hood (guitars, mandocello and vocals), Patton (bass), Gonzalez (piano, Wurlitzer, organ and synthesizer), Morgan (drums), Jason Isbell (slide guitar), Mike Cooley (banjo and guitar), Schaefer Llana (harmonies), Little Sue Weaver (harmonies), Kyleen King (viola) and the Aretha Garland Singers (harmonies).
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