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2 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Heaven's Gate' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

For those not familiar with the music of Simon Joyner, I strongly encourage you to begin investigating. Heaven's Gate may be a good starting point. It's a much more quiet record than Cowardly Traveller, shaking off the ramshackle indie rock residue in favour of an intimate, acoustic folk template. His singing is front and centre, warbling and unpolished, which delivers a special glow to the first-person narrated songs. The other accompaniments are likewise spare, just a few drums here, some organ there, rarely taking the spotlight, but when it happens (as the violin and cello on 'Kerosene') it's remarkable. The title of this album reminds me of the failed Michael Cimino film I never saw, though probably now most resonates with the death cult who became nationally prominent a few years after this was released. But 'Kerosene', rather than being a Big Black cover, uses the literal gate of heaven as a metaphor for a chronicle of a woman turned away from something, full of rural and apocalyptic imagery. As these songs are all reasonably long, Joyner has time to really stretch out lyrically and paint with words. 'Three Well-Aimed Arrows' probes his own subconscious and is the most rickety tune, and 'The Black Dog' gets almost spooky. 'Farewell to Percival' ends the record as a long quest song, ostensibly a farewell but also full of surreal and adventurous imagery, and all prodding along with Chris Deden's simple drums and organ playing behind Joyner's guitar. This is the most unflashy of accompaniments and it's perfect, though only the second best musical gesture on the album. The best would be on Heaven's Gate's pièce de résistance, 'Catherine', a simple and plaintive song about a mother (perhaps Joyner's own? or maybe it's just a song). This is a song of great, unbreakable beauty, rolling along a gentle strum like a wave, and with a subtle, yet pitch-perfect accordion part played by Bill Hoover between the breaths. Hardcore Joyner fans or Joyner himself may be surprised that I find this song so resonant, especially against other more ambitious works ('Prometheus', or the carved-up Bert Janschisms of 'Alabaster'), but for decades now I've gone back to listen to it over and over, wearing out the vinyl, and sometimes I have to fight back tears to get through it. I don't think it was the inspiration for Jenny Slate's web series of the same name, but that would be improved by overdubbing this song behind each episode. Most things would be improved by a bit of 'Catherine'. 

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