Thursday, June 9, 2016

John Moreland: One Of The Best Singer/Songwriters Of Our Time

Most of us know what it is like to find music that we fall in love with, but every now and then we find an artist that completely consumes us. We discover a person or group that somehow has the right emotional combination to fully invade our beings. You don’t so much listen to them as experience them and willingly do so over and over on a daily basis without building the normal sonic fatigue.

I’ve spent several weeks trying to think of a way to describe my love for John Moreland’s music. Saying it’s “great” means nothing--there are a lot of great singers today.  Words like transcendent and redemptive come close but still fall short of the effect Moreland has had on me. Nevertheless, I’ll try.

The Tulsa, OK singer/songwriter released his third solo album, High On Tulsa Heat, in the spring of 2015. The album follows his 2013 release of In The Throes, which caught the attention of Jason Isbell as he took Moreland on tour with him, the FX show Sons of Anarchy as they featured three of his songs, and even MSNBC host Rachel Maddow who tweeted, “If the American music business made any sense, guys like John Moreland would be household names.”

While the record selling business is in a deadly tailspin with no end in sight, the record making business--with musical genius and production wizardry a mere phone call away in any city--is alive and well. But Moreland, like many of the great singer-songwriters, strips his albums down to the core, where every word, every phrase, and every note seems to drip with depth. He seems to be allergic to the idea of magic as an escape route within his art, whether with digital recording trickery or by gimmicky beer/truck/girl metaphors just bland enough to reach the lowest common denominator of pop country music listeners.

Many of Moreland’s songs use heartbreak and lost love as the foundation for his message--a topic that is both universal and, in average hands, worn out. But in exploring the pain of heartbreak, Moreland focuses on an unspoken truth of how we create so much of our identity within the other person. He expresses that the pain of losing ourselves, of who we think we are, is ultimately more devastating than losing someone else.

Well babe, I’m afraid I lost it before you knew I had it
I only wanted one thing and I put my faith in magic
I threw my love into the ocean and I found it in the sand
I need you to tell me who I am

Moreland was in hardcore and heavy metal bands through his childhood until he discovered his father’s record collection, which included Tom Petty, CCR, Neil Young, and Steve Earle. Earle’s 2004 release, The Revolution Starts Now, with the track “Rich Man’s War” was like a “punch in the chest,” says Moreland.

Moreland’s singing voice alternates between the soulful bluesy grit of Steve Earle and the lonesome plaintiveness of Neil Young. It’s a voice almost without equal in today’s music. When Moreland opens his song, “Cherokee,” with “I guess I got a taste for poison / I’ve given up on ever bein’ well, you immediately know this is not any type of character study. You are in his skin and you are going to walk down this road with him.  

Official video for "Cherokee"

Simply put, Moreland expresses the pain of being human better than any musician I’ve heard in a long time. While so much art is escapist--mental tricks so we forget who we are--Moreland dives into the human experience, embracing it and swallowing it whole, only to give it back to us in a pure, distilled form. It’s the musical equivalent of reading Kerouac when you’re 20 and discovering the undercurrent of the American soul with both its beautiful tragedies and redemptive desires.

National TV debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Moreland’s career has picked up speed since his fall appearance on Stephen Colbert, and he’s getting consistent recognition from Rolling Stone Country in their best new artists and best albums you haven’t heard yet lists, but, as of now, it doesn’t seem like he will explode through the scene the way Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton have. Kyle “The Triggerman” Coroneos, writer for the site Saving Country Music, and one-man “bro-country” wrecking machine, argues that his lack of production on his albums is holding him back. He writes, “Yes the songwriting here ranks somewhere between top shelf and unmatched, but the production and recording of the effort teeters somewhere between lazy and uninspired, making for a project that is hard to engage in cover to cover, giving little delineation between songs, and suffering from a blandness that will unfortunately and unnecessarily limit the size of the audience the album will appeal to.” Maybe he’s right about the lack of production limiting the size of his audience; I don’t know. What I am sure of though is that I’m hearing something in Moreland’s music that Coroneos does not. His inability to engage fully with the album is only matched by my inability to disengage myself from the album and listen to something else.  

I have no idea if anyone else will hear Moreland the same way I do. Most probably won’t, and that’s ok, but I do hope everyone finds their own John Moreland.  It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a powerful moment when it does.  

--Brian Paul Swenk

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