When singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, an Akron native whose career has been characterized by heaps of critical acclaim, released the epic two-part album The Ballad of Boogie Christ
back in 2013, he told us he wasn’t worried about what he'd do for an encore. Turns out, he didn't really have reason for concern. In the wake of that release, he released two albums, 2014’s Lou: The Songs of Lou Reed
, and this year's Days of Surrender
. He also recorded a new studio album that’s coming out next year and he teamed up with Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament for an album that will also arrive in 2016. Dubbed RNDM, that group has just issued a new single, and Arthur says he's excited about the album because "frankly, it kicks ass."
Despite its whimsical genesis, his tribute to Lou Reed came off particularly well.
"That was a record that Bill Bentley at Vanguard asked me to make,” he says via phone from his Brooklyn home. “I honestly wouldn’t have thought to do that. I would not have been so bold on my own volition. I more just did it rather than thought about it. When I thought about it, I thought not to do it. But I did ‘Coney Island Baby’ on acoustic guitar, piano and acoustic bass, and it sounded really good. I did another one and that's how it went. I kept it really simple and after a few days it was done. I sent it to Bill, and he thought it was wonderful. I was really mourning my friend through that process and celebrating him and getting to know him on an intimate level.”
Initially, Arthur made quite an impression with his 2000 full-length debut Come to Where I'm From
. One of the year's best-reviewed albums, it ended up on a number of Top 10 lists. After its release, Arthur continued to release albums at a rapid pace throughout the 2000s and The Ballad of Boogie Christ
marked his return to Real World, the label run by former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, a guy who's been vocal about how much he likes Arthur's music. Having Gabriel as a fan certainly provides a good dose of credibility.
With The Ballad of Boogie Christ
, Arthur, who recalls that he would go to Akron Jewish summer camp even though he’s not Jewish, works out his obsession with religion. The title track evokes Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as Arthur talks more than he sings and imagines that if Christ were to come back today, he would be the kind of guy who would eat pizza and love hip-hop. "Christ would be rockin'/Christ would be free," he sings. Woozy horns and backing vocals give the song a soulful vibe. His lack of religious upbringing aside, Arthur says he's not simply trying to be irreverent and flippant about the man many consider to be the Messiah. Rather, he says he tries to humanize Christ with the album’s songs.
Days of Surrender
, a "made-it-alone and mixed-it-myself kind of record" with psychedelic rock overtones, represents yet another triumphant moment for Arthur. The tender opening tune, “Pledge of Allegiance,” finds Arthur evocatively mumbling “we’re running out of time” over and over.
“On one level, it’s kind of apocalyptic,” he says of the song. “It’s vague and impressionistic apocalypse. It’s a stream of consciousness poem piece. There’s no specific agenda in the song, you know what I mean. The lyrics wrote themselves. I haven't really analyzed it. I like what it’s vibe is. It's Mad Max
The album isn’t all doom and gloom, however. The jangly “I Don’t Know the Way” starts slow but finishes strong as Arthur, who sneers more than he sings on the tune, sounds a bit like Tom Petty on the track. Hissing guitars give the song a real edge.
“It’s like a psychedelic exploration mood music groove record,” he says. “It’s a homemade production, one guy vibe. The songs are like that too. There’s an innocence to the songwriting. In general, I look at that album as a whole. I was making an album that was almost a throwback to how I used to write records. The songs are more unconscious and free and sometimes they miss the mark but that’s okay too. I thought it really achieved that. I wanted to put it out but not as my next statement. I could have fleshed it out, but I liked it how it was. I wanted to just let it go and be what it is. The creative spirit in making it was super fun and super free. I was having the time of my life making the album.”
For the current tour, Arthur will perform solo, something he's done plenty in the past.
“My alone show has been developing and evolving over the years,” he says. “I feel really good about bringing it to town.”
Joseph Arthur, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25, The Tangier, 532 West Market St., Akron, 330-376-7171. tickets: $25-$30, thetangier.com.