The name might not mean much to you, but it does to Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell, the latter recording with his former Drive By Truckers bandmates for the first time since 2007 to provide the album’s backing musicians. Born in LA. and currently resident in Portland, Oregon, while flying somewhat under the radar, Joseph’s been touring and releasing music since the early 90s, but The Beautiful Madness should put him firmly on the map.
Produced by Hood and recorded in Matt Patton’s Mississippi studio with the Truckers playing sessioneers under the name of the Stiff Boys, it runs the gamut from ballads to ballsy alt-country rockers and brooding blues, kicking off with the reminiscences of the Patterson co-write rolling kick drum rhythm ‘Days Of Heaven’ (“Back down on this porch singing to myself with my brothers 45/Putting down the torch /Surrender to the swell/Ready for the dive/These are the days of heaven”), named for the Terence Malick film and conjuring lovers’ passion as he sings “Fists and claws, the blood you draw as you make my blood your own”.
‘Bone Towers’ is slower and bluesier, a Velvets-like slow shuffle that useS abandoned buildings as a metaphor for a faded relationship (“I’ve seen these monuments to lost faces/Waving their signal flags and trying to break thru/The cries of strangers in strange places/I never thought that the stranger was you”).
Loss and memories are there again on the more urgent drive of the regret-filled ‘Full Body Echo’ (“All the lovely faces When I wake they disappear/I know that they loved me then/And can feel their love again… If I could I’d turn back time I would tread a softer line”), the only number under the five minute mark.
The need of redemption underpins the brooding, speak-sing ‘San Acacia’, opening with echoing piano notes before tumbling, tribal drums arrive (“See me as a broken man/Underneath the bougainvilleas/Heal me with your hands”), lines like “All gods little angels keep her whisper in their tongues/While she sleeps among the furs and your troubled world is done” and “Arturo said he knew your mother before trouble had a price/But now there’s only absolution in the blood of sacrifice” evoking troubling visions.
Set to a slow walking march beat, ‘(I’m in Love With) Hyrum Black’ references Brigham Young, founder of the Mormon religion (Joseph spend some years in Utah and had a backing band called the Jackmormons), in a song in which the female protagonist defies her father and says she’s riding off with the titular Black, a former outlaw and killed in Young’s service who promises to “lay down his guns and follow the Book” if she’ll marry him, and while she’s “not a girl so easily deceived”, although “the saints may howl the earth may crack” she’ll be by his side because “His smell of blood and the desert I crave it”.
While it seems unlikely to have been written prior to the Covid19 outbreak, the dark, rumbling ‘Good’ does mention “pandemic parasites”, although the songs more about those who latch on to and exploit end of days fears in a world run by fools where “We have ten thousand friends” but “Not one can hold our hand” and “We’re scared of immigrants, and Nazi Jesus freaks/We’re calmed by medicines till we can’t even speak”. But there’s still a note of hope because “After a hundred years/The Jaguars coming back …And at the speed of light there’s folks like you and me/I’ve heard the birthday songs in the holding camps/I hear the call to prayer/I see my children dance” and “It’s up to us now to deliver/And make it good”.
Keeping his eye on the social climate, arriving on static and clanging drums and featuring Mike Cooley on banjo, the seven minute ‘Sugar Smacks’ is a talking blues about the world as “a rubber ball full of rage” (“I’m full of demons and they’re screaming inside”) where “the fascists in the White House only laugh and pull another trigger” and we’re left thinking “We might really need a gun”, painting an apocalyptic image of “Himalayan monks in the Ding Bouche’/watching digital porn on their enlightenment phones” and we’re all in “a permanent cinder block refugee camp reading about/Sexual harassment on the executive level at a Portland advertising agency”. And so it goes, throwing in mentions of Strummer, Bowie, Flannery O’Connor and Lakota Sioux Medicine songs sung by Rocky Mountain white kids and concluding “It’s a scary fucking world when you can’t tell the pigs from the priests”. Cheery stuff.
Bowie, in fact, gets another nod in ‘Black Star Line’, a piano-anchored walking beat number, a tribute referencing the star man waving in the sky, written on the night he died and recalling the time he first saw him on the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, crunchy guitars leading into a turbulent, noisy finale.
That’s preceded by the powerful ‘Dead Confederate’ featuring Isbell on slide, a lyrically incendiary number about prejudice and racial hatred that references the tearing down of Confederate statues as he sings about “project housing, chicken bones and broken bricks…my Jim Crow benediction, ropes and hoods and local cheer”. It takes a scalpel to peel back the romantic myth of the Rebel Yell as the deceased protagonist recalls the auction blocks of slavery and “selling the bodies of black boys and girls” because “buying selling humans was good work if you could get it”, adding “I ain’t sorry, ain’t regretting it, now they’re trying to tear me down”.
It brilliantly captures that poisoned Southern, American Right mentality in the line “Jesus was a white man and he promised we could rule/So we burn his holy cross in honor, hang the negro and the fool”, ending with the foreboding promise that “I will rise again out on Highway 29”.
Featuring the Aretha Garland Singers on gospel harmonies, the album ends with the soulful ‘Eureka’, a reference to the port city in Northern California and a song about escaping the confines of home (“You knew in the moment that you walked the Great Wall of China/They could never keep their claws in you and you left them all behind”) the death of the (possibly illegitimate) protagonist’s father (“On the day that he died everyone held you and cried”) but how “you knew deep inside you were never going back to Eureka”.
Not an album designed to send you to bed for a good night’s sleep perhaps, but as an unflinching look at the world in which we live and an attempt to bring the light of truth to the bear on its darker corners, this is madness to which you really should surrender.
‘Days Of Heaven’ – official video: