Joseph Arthur - The Ballad of Boogie Christ
Double albums are risky business. You have to be at the top of your game as an artist to engage listeners for the entirety of one disc, with the risk of letting in grotty filler only increasing over two. At worst, double-discs can come across as pretentious and self-indulgent - so, a double album that is simultaneously a concept album? Good luck. Cult singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur steps up to the challenge though, and perhaps years of his talent being overlooked in favour of contemporaries such as Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst have helped make The Ballad of Boogie Christ the overwhelming creative success it is, all 100 minutes of the thing.
It's as if the commendable efforts of the talented nearly-man have been building towards this stellar achievement. 'Boogie Christ' is a fictionalised character loosely based on Arthur's own experience, and provides an entry point to songs that don't bog the listener down with an impenetrable story but do explore emerging themes such as addiction, disillusionment and, ultimately, salvation. This glue, along with Arthur's distinctively grizzled vocal, also creates a cohesion between the different styles apparent here: although his discography is proof of his straight-ahead rock credentials, The Ballad of Boogie Christ draws its inspiration from other genres so that the long listen is consistently surprising and far from an endurance test.
'Currency of Love' is the disarming opener, orchestral doo-wop pop that possesses one of Arthur's most soulful vocals. Despite the titular alter-ego, the record in its entirety could be called Arthur's most heart-on-sleeve thanks to several confessionals, notably a re-recorded version of 'I Miss the Zoo' with its raw vocal and stream-of-consciousness revelations that take on a hymnal hue when the organ comes in. For every sublime emotional breakthrough, there's an unabashed anthem: 'Wait For Your Lights' is a nighttime neon driving record, 'King of Cleveland' all widescreen ambition, 'It's Okay to Be Young/Gone' a blast of glorious summer that will see you through winter, and the title track a gospel-tinged psychedelic waltz on a Beck tip. By the time you get to wordy-but-wise 'All the Old Heroes', a world-weary but uplifting triumph of a track, there's still a whole disc left.
The second disc continues the road to redemption, bringing together further folk tales ('Holding the Void') and rock jams ('Maybe Yes') infused with the same rich soulfulness hinted at on previous Arthur records. It's perhaps not as strong as the first set, but could easily be released as an album in its own right and gain plaudits. The arrangements continue to impress with horns, keys, sitar (why not?) and backing vocals layered in; when considered as a whole, the album's guest list - comprising the likes of Ben Harper, Juliette Lewis and Joan Wasser - adds colour to both the instrumentation and choruses. However, Arthur is the guiding force throughout and it his artistry and actualisation of such that makes this lengthy Ballad a musical highlight of the year and a Great American Novel where you'll want to dog-ear and wear out your favourite chapters.