Joseph Arthur was on a van traveling through the South of France. He was on his way to another club gig in another town where practically nobody would know his name or his music, but it didn’t seem to bother him.
“I think people who remain slightly under the radar are sort of the luckiest,” said Mr. Arthur via his cell phone. By this, he meant: “Artists who have a good-enough fan base to make a living, but never getting too huge, because ultimately that messes you up.
When he talked to Manhattan Music late last year, Mr. Arthur was on his second tour of Europe for the year, evangelizing his album Redemption’s Son . Then he returned to his native country-he hails from Akron, Ohio-to repeat the process. (He played the Knitting Factory on Jan. 10.) Such is the life of your average below-the-radar musician.
The thing is, Mr. Arthur is hardly an average musician: He’s an exceptional lyricist and a serious melodist-one of the few young songwriters out there who has a shot at being one of the greats.
And though Redemption’s Son (RealWorld) is not a masterpiece, it is one of the most worthy and listenable albums of 2002, as well as a testament to Mr. Arthur’s potential. The album crashes almost as much as it soars, but the results are always interesting. And often they are sublime.
Mr. Arthur has a talent for turning freakish human emotions into a kind of in-phase beauty. He’s the man behind the counter in Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” dressing his dirty wares in elegant lyricism and sensuous pop arrangements. As he sings on “I Would Rather Hide,” a song that has an ethereal Brian Wilson–esque intro and a 70’s soft-rock sound: “I know that we’re all insane when there’s no one else around.”
Mr. Arthur isn’t exactly eager to discuss how he came by this knowledge. His Akron upbringing was off-limits during the interview, though he did recall a supposedly memorable moment in nursery school. “We were making masks, and I purposely set out to make a really freaky mask,” he said, without describing the finished product. “I didn’t understand what I was doing, but it was the same drive, trying to really expose something.”
After forcing himself to graduate high school, he headed north to play in a jazz band in Cleveland. At 18, he moved to Atlanta, where he said he worked odd jobs -pizza chef, door-to-door salesman, guitar-shop gofer-until his demo tape landed in Peter Gabriel’s hands in 1996. Mr. Gabriel and Lou Reed auditioned Mr. Arthur at his first solo gig at the Fez downtown, and that landed him on Mr. Gabriel’s label, RealWorld.
Mr. Arthur is an anomaly on the RealWorld roster, which is mainly devoted to practitioners of world music, such as Mr. Gabriel and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And, not surprisingly, he admitted during the interview that he was unhappy with the way RealWorld had been promoting Redemption’s Son .
But getting a label berth enabled Mr. Arthur to get his foot in the door, even if he’s still trying to get into the Big Room. “I’m still at the place where I struggle to make a living, and I’d like to struggle less,” he said.
That said, much of Mr. Arthur’s work is about struggling and failing and coming clean about it. “Vulnerability is entertainment,” he said on his tour bus.
But when it comes to his own work, Mr. Arthur claimed that there’s another element in the mix. “My experience and my personality are the clothes the songs are wearing, but [the thoughts] are ultimately coming from a deeper place-from a spirit of the universe.”
That may sound trippier-than-thou, but listen to “Favorite Girl,” one of the album’s best songs. The track starts as a languorous guitar-and-piano kiss-off to a vain lover, with Mr. Arthur singing in the hushed tones of an addict well-acquainted with the power of his addiction. Then the chorus elevates the song. “I don’t know what I should do / I’ve been so happy being unhappy with you,” he sings as cellos gently rise and fall, later adding: “And if salvation only comes when you fall? / Oh lord, it’s so hard for me to believe / Oh lord, I’m still waiting for you to call.” Anyone who lives in this universe knows that there is always room for one more original song about sadomasochistic love affairs.
Of course, in the wrong hands, vulnerability and liberation can amount to Top 40 dreck. But Mr. Arthur’s nuanced lyrics are devoid of bombast, never whiny and always brutally frank.
His music, too, tends to be quiet, though it defies easy generalizations. The layered acoustic guitars and piano recall the music of Nick Drake and the early work of Leonard Cohen, who is clearly an influence. But Mr. Arthur also works with hip-hoppy drum loops and gauzy, electronic sounds with touches of grunge, synth-pop and emo-ish chamber pop. There are hummable melodies of different kinds, and everything is given the same texture and power by his voice-which ranges from searing falsetto to gravelly croon-and shimmering harmonies.
Mr. Arthur works best when he works simple, as he does on “You Are the Dark”, with its stripped-down-staircase melody plucked on an acoustic guitar and fretless bass, and its down-and-out lyrics: “I guess I’ll live up in my head / I’d call you up, but my phone is dead / And I need too much.”
You can’t blame Mr. Arthur for experimenting, but Redemption’s Son suffers from too much of it. There is a tendency to pile on the instruments and effects. Two of the best-written songs, the title track and “Honey and the Moon,” are nearly crushed by heavy-handed production.
But even the songs that fall short have a wounded beauty that captures his (and our) struggle to struggle less. Mr. Arthur doesn’t avert his eyes from the kind of fucked-up behavior that makes others blink-and cringe. And the retentive, introspective glances on Redemption’s Son make him worthy of a place on our radar.