When I heard the lovelorn ballad "In the Sun" by Peter Gabriel in the late 1990s, I thought it was an original until I saw the songwriting credits- "Written by Joseph Arthur" which led me down a path to this wondrous musical genius. Despite watching him evolve as a musician and painter nothing could have prepared me for when I heard his latest record Redemption City, a sprawling twenty-four song collection capturing the eccentricities of the human condition. If releasing a double record was not ambitious enough, it is available free in the highest possible MP3 quality with the option of lossless files (FLAC) on his website. If 2012 ended today Redemption City would be my record of the year, which most people would not expect from a record given away. Joseph Arthur has created some of the most captivating records of the last two decades. He was the first American act signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World record label in the 1990's and has since become a free agent who creates out of necessity. Arthur's records offer melancholy and blossoming landscapes performed through a variety of non-traditional instruments notably pedals and a moog synthesizer but they never overshadow the lyrics. His stories jump out at the listener through his raspy spoken words. His writing is lean and direct while dancing above us in elegiac exquisiteness. With acute life observations at hand, Joseph Arthur infuses Redemption City with candor and veracity missing from so much music today. So many musicians mean well but often falter in their industriousness. They construct the music to the point of manipulation with over-the-top production and choruses to be deciphered in any language. There's nothing wrong with this route, but at some point, the meaning behind the music becomes hollow as they're playing to the audience instead of pleasing themselves. Arthur tackles the draught of societal direction with relish. He has created a masterwork that serves society as a deliberate rally cry. On Redemption City Joseph Arthur takes us all down to the river for a baptismal renewal where we will all walk hand-in-hand.
Redemption City opens with "Travel As Equals", a dashing acoustic strummer with poetic beats and a lilting injection of hope. Redemption City may be too opaque for the casual listener to grasp as a whole, but "Travel As Equals" is a contender for the song of the decade with its underlying message of understanding. With its roots in the folk music of the 1930s, Arthur has created a startling declaration of resolution and empathy which is something desperately needed at this moment in time. His fury is inconspicuous and instead of rage, he brings the song into focus through his rhythmical lyrics and a galloping beat that prove to be a rallying cry for all of us. There is an underlying thesis of preservation that is comforting and hearkens back to the Bob Dylan of the 1960s. When he sings, "The only way we can survive is travels as equals or not at all", he lays it out for everyone to hear. The chaos and confusion of life is enough to suffocate most and unless we're willing to fight the battle together, we might as well surrender. In life, we search for affirmation above all else. Whether it's in the form of a cheering crowd, a hug from your child or a partner willing to take the risk and take a lifelong journey with you. The barriers set before us are daunting and we seek assertion in our hopes, desires and fears. He opens his arms to the rich and poor, this isn't about tearing anyone down but coming together because the uphill voyage will always be better as a community. It is inspiring that Arthur manages to cut through the red tape of life and finds a way for all of us (the disenfranchised, the rich, the poor, etc.) to be socially liberated where we all stand as one.
The production is nothing short of glorious with tracks built upon one another as each attempts to provide a GPS to a better mindset. Not a single note or lyric within the record feels forced. It instead elevates us where we are able to follow the light without a logjam of static. As we wrestle with what feels like an impending doom, Arthur offers a hand of hope through his songs. On "Wasted Days" he manages to find his way inside my head with this vivid metropolitan view of society at the brink of exhaustion. Walking down a city street you zip past more hurt and uncertainty that you could ever imagine. As we study their body language I wonder if they happy, sad or lost in a world at large? "Yer Only Job" (which also is a children's book available on his site) finds Arthur slashing through the red tape of our lives. We stress and fret over our 9-to-5 existence so much so, we forget what is most essential; our lives. He doesn't preach but speaks and steers. "I Miss the Zoo" offers a kaleidoscope of lifestyles from drug hazes to exhilarated life joys. "No Surrender Comes For Free" has an over the moon chorus ready-made for radio which sadly in 2012 it simply isn't bombastic enough for FM dials. "Night Clothes" is searing noir landscape full of ghosts seeking their home in a society without limitations, stereotypes or tags. He paints a picture of a fractured society all seeking consolation but it is lined with amorous insight. "There With Me", "Yer Only Job", "You're Not the Only One" descend upon the listener through repeating loops, Dylan-esque protest acoustic chords, synthesizers, drum machines and monotone vocals that inform, teach and impart momentous wisdom. The message is effortless, but is dressed up in such a colorful manner, it elevates the significance. Arthur has a rare ability (along with Michael Franti) to channel the yearning of a better tomorrow into hymns that truly make you feel as if we're on the path to salvation. He turns the ugliness on its head focusing on the beauty of it all. We don't need an invention from science, we don't need money piled to the ceiling, we simply need a healthier way to communicate compassion, which is exactly what he does on Redemption City.
It's important to note, that despite Redemption City being twenty-four songs long, it should largely be judged by the first twelve tracks ("Part 1" is what constitutes my four-star rating). This is the proper album as Arthur intended it. However, since he opted to give the record away, he wanted to give his twelve outtakes the proper context as well. As Arthur explains on his website, "Which would have otherwise remained on the cutting room floor or else been leaked out over time in various ways, fragmented beings with no brothers or sisters or home. I think both parts serve to strengthen the whole." "Surrender to the Storm" opens the second half of the record and the sprawling eleven-minute opus is languorous with some of the most yearning guitar work to grace his recorded output to date. The lyrics drop off his tongue on "Free Freedom", a cut too good to languish in a vault while "Visit Us" and "I Am the Mississippi" augment the first twelve songs with cryptic musical interludes that may not work as standalone songs but reflect the DNA of Redemption City. Instead of losing these songs to time, Arthur has given them to proper framework allowing them to breath on their own. Closing the collection out is a reprise of "Travel as Equals" bringing the album full circle. The songs on Redemption City encourage the listeners to embrace light and love instead of drowning themselves in a quicksand of anger. Arthur's ability to embroider these vitalizing lyrics with layered atmospherics is a rare one. He delicately designs each song so that its point is driven home during the listen. This isn't bedroom music, but a lightning rod awakening that dissipates isolation.
Most music communicates feelings we long for, whereas Joseph Arthur captures magic by writing about the human existence at its core in there here-and-now. He offers answers to the ominous diseases that infect our society- jealousy, isolation and desperation. Nevertheless, when you hear listen to Redemption City he draws you closer to the light. Arthur provides graceful yet elegant guides for life without sacrificing his artistry. He believes in his craft so much that you can download this record free at his website in high quality MP3's or even FLAC files. Joseph Arthur is a traveling troubadour of the human heart whose rhapsodic blend of gentle poetry and lush soundscapes represents a triumph not just of artistic expression but also of personal connection. Preaching a prophecy of eventual hope, Redemption City isn't just one of this decade's great albums and 2012's best, it's a catalyst to a better tomorrow.
Click HERE to download your free copy of Redemption City
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter