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3 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Songs for the New Year' (Sing, Eunuchs!/Shrimper)

Songs for the New Year is a record of quiet, intense songs; its lyric sheet takes up two full pages and it's not in a large typeface. Joyner often pens lengthy tracts, never at this point in his career content to repeat a simple mantra or let less do more. This isn't a criticism, nor is it meant to convey that he is some radical experimentalist in form – there's still verses and repeating choruses, the basic building blocks of the song. But a tune like 'Parachute' shifts through so many different ideas over a few minutes that it needs to be listened to again to be fully absorbed. And even after almost twenty years I still haven't fully digested Songs for the New Year. The title would indicate that this album has a theme of newness and rebirth, and I suppose it's there, but it's really about winter and coldness taking over. I can imagine the Omaha winters are stark and harsh; here, it's just beginning in Helsinki so it's a perfect soundtrack to watch the snow fall. The album opens with 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll', a song that was not on the album of the same name and wouldn't have really fit there anyway, but here it's perfect. It functions as a gateway to the rest of this record, with Chris Deden's echoey piano notes and Joyner's gentle voice providing the foundation for this song of journey and escape. So many of Joyner's songs seem to be about travelling, or at least trying to get somewhere, and this is almost like a meta-tune, a skeleton key to the rest. The song I've gone back to the most over the years is 'Two Friends Take a Bow for the Record', describing just what its title indicates. Distance is again a theme, though here's its emotional distance, and this requiem for an ending friendship is complex without being bitter, grimacing through pain without resorting to irony. It's a feeling we've all lived through, yet has rarely been chronicled in 4/4 (or any other) time. The slow, plaintive pulse of the music allow Joyner to inhabit the narrative, and his voice sounds less warbling than on previous records, driven by the honesty and conviction of what he's singing about. Loss, again, is a recurring concept; these friends are certainly from the same Joynerverse of characters that narrate 'Born of Longing' or 'I Wrote a Song About the Ocean', who yearn to escape from their own memories. 'Disappear From Here' closes the record and is the most stripped down, just Joyner and his guitar, and the way it proceeds through a line of verses reminds me of Neil Young closing On the Beach with 'Ambulance Blues'. The rural themes so prevalent on Heaven's Gate return, with winter explicitly discussed, and the final moments really feels like a man trying to intentionally fade into nothing. This record is so quiet and it's also recorded in an intimate way, with carefully chosen arrangements - the accordion playing that I raved about on the last record returns here, and is just as beautifully understated. I wouldn't call this lo-fi, hi-fi, bi-fi or any other kind of fi - it's merely plain ol' fidelity, and when you turn it up, it doesn't sound richer or more complex; it's like this was meant to be listened to quietly, while a candle burned. Songs for the New Year is the end of an era, for after this Joyner began his more heavily orchestrated Truckstop era, another rewarding period of his insanely prolific career. Unfortunately I never managed to acquire physical copies of any of that stuff so we have to end the discussion of Mr. Joyner's output here, but this is a beautiful and precise place to do so.

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