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2023 Albums Thing 205 - Jerry Joseph “The Beautiful Madness”

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I remember the days when a mate would recommend a record you’d never heard of or you would read a review of an album that sounded interesting and you’d just go out and take a chance on it. Well record buying has become an expensive game over the years but an old friend, Dermott the former DJ at the legendary J.B.’s in Dudley, recommended this album to me, so I read some reviews and decided I’d give it a go, even at the £30+ it was gonna cost for a record by someone I’d never heard of.

But I had heard of producer Patterson Hood (he of the Drive-By Truckers). Most of the Truckers make up the backing band on most of this album and Jason Isbell pitches in with slide guitar too on “Dead Confederate” (more of that one later) so there were inklings it could be good. Jerry Jospeh himself is from San Diego and now resides in Portland Oregon. He’s been releasing records since the mid 90’s and Hood and Isbell are long time fans.

I was quite excited when this record arrived. I’d purposefully not listened to anything (as you can online these days), I wanted that pristine, let’s hear it all for the first time experience. It’s green (the vinyl that is), which looked great as it exited its sleeve for the first time, and first impressions were…well, they were “holy hell, who is this guy and why have I never heard of him before”. Musically there’s nothing wildly earth shattering going on here, it’s acoustic based American rock, what would now be referred to as Americana, but Jerry is an engaging singer and a master lyricist. 

“Days Of Heaven” fades in on a gently picked guitar before picking up a shuffle beat after the first chorus. This and ensuing songs on Side 1 reference obscure Athens, GA band Bloodkin, towns in Tenerife and New Mexico, Bougainvillea bushes and Mormon cowboys (!) in the mysterious “(I’m In Love With) Hyrum Black”. The meat of this album however lies over on Side 2 and particularly in 3 songs, “Sugar Smacks”, “Dead Confederate” and “Black Star Line”.

“Sugar Smacks” is seven minutes of Joseph raging about the world around him. Producer Patterson Hood said of it “It might be the most punk rock song I’ve heard in twenty years”. The origins of the song lie in a documentary a friend was making about Joseph when he played shows in “Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand and then the Middle East – Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel and somewhere in there we fit in Europe, Mexico and the US. While playing shows in Tel Aviv, the first Hamas rockets hit the city but we went ahead with our shows.” Many of those experiences make it into “Sugar Snaps”. It’s dark and dense and angry and very, very twitchy. The lyrics are almost a stream of consciousness babble and don’t seem to make sense at times, just snatches of images seen, like

I've seen the Himalayan monks in the Ding Bouche' 

Watching digital porn on their lightning phones


Me too she said , Isis Slavery and genital mutilation 

Now we're here in a permanent cinder block refugee camp 

Reading about sexual harassment on the executive level of a Portland advertising agency


The cartels are so happy about legal California weed that for 10 fucking minutes they stopped the slaughter and rape of Juarez compañeros 

Then they quit laughing and went back to stuffing bodies into 50 barrel drums

And amidst all that doom and gloom there’s a flicker of hope, but it doesn’t end so bright

Can I get an amen for Johnny Thunders? 

Can I get an amen for David Bowie? 

Can I get an amen for Joe Strummer? 

Oh god, If they could only see us now

It’s a starkly moving song. As is “Dead Confederate” but in a different manner. This is  a gentle acoustic song with anything but a gentle message. It’s a song sung from the point of view of one of those statues of dead Confederate Generals that still cause many an argument in Southern States of the USA, statues that glorify slavery and the men that fought to defend it (“Standing, I been standing, best part of 80 years, With my Jim Crow benediction, ropes and hoods and local cheer”). But Jerry Joseph isn’t here to defend that but to point out the absurdity of these statues and what they stand for in a time when in Alabama “All I see is project housing, chicken bones and broken bricks”. It’s a harrowing and dark story.

Which leads into the much brighter “Black Star Liner” which, even as the name may suggest, isn’t about Marcus Garvey’s shipping line but is Jerry Joseph’s tribute to the passing of David Bowie. It’s another random bunch of images of Joseph’s fandom over the years (“Somewhere, lost in between Salvador Dali and tigers on vaseline, Big dreams…Starman waving from the sky”)…heartfelt.

Were it not for the release of Springsteen’s “Letter To You” this would definitely have been my top album of 2020, but it ran the Boss a very close 2nd. There really is no groundbreaking new style of music here, Jerry Joseph was nearly 60 years old when this record was released (and by looking that up I’ve discovered he has a new album out this year which I must now go investigate) it’s simply an album of well written songs with something to say. Sometimes that’s more than good enough.

Sugar Smacks - https://youtu.be/xCIygAMldXc?si=F6krN0_1Js_RPuq0

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