On his ninth outing, Simon Joyner moves two notches up the songwriter's scale and takes on all comers. He and producer Michael Krassner have crafted a wrenching, emotionally wrought, and musically ambitiously album that is based around Joyner's keen eye for seeing in the shadows -- those lost, those left, and those damned. His empathy and tenderness for his protagonists is heartbreaking, as if he could see not only himself in all of these characters, but his family and friends too. It's not critical hype to say that Joyner possesses the same emotional depth as Leonard Cohen, or the same ability to tell a story. Here are the inhabitants of the boarding house in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, still staggering or sitting wondering what's become of their lives. Joyner's characters tell their stories as if from shock, in the aftermath of their disbelief at the beginning of quiet, devastating acceptance. Songs such as "The Blue Hammer" is a first-person narrative of a man who became a traveler because he "lived alone because she left me that way," and who encounters all manner of humanity on his way toward a fire he finds himself engulfed in and cannot escape. With a piano plinking delicately in the background, Joyner sings: "I longed for escape from the black burning woods/Everything in the smoke was trying to get free/But nothing I saw could be saved or made good/In fact everything was scorched on all sides of me." He finally gets out and makes it home, un-nailing his shut door only to find that after a nap, "I awoke to the smoke and the fire in the ceiling/When you retire your hammer, the forest attacks." His gentle fatalism is unnerving. Krassner, who's produced the last two of Joyner's records, enlists the help of ubiquitous Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and avant-jazz composer and reedist Guillermo Gregorio, with Will Hendricks on piano and Glenn Kotche on drums, as well as a host of other painterly musical personalities to add color and nuance. But it's Joyner, with a vision so seductive, bleak, and fallen, that grabs the listener's attention and keeps it. He sounds like Stephen Foster in his last days at the American Hotel, writing songs and poems only for himself instead of melodies for the masses who rejected him. On "Now We Must Face Each Other," you can hear a young Leonard Cohen in his tragic voice full of Foster's despair. The strings and Gregorio's clarinet hover hesitantly in the air, playing elegiac ally to comfort a singer who is disconsolate: "Why would you put your freedom above me/When you know it leaves nothing between us/Have you discovered a new discipline/At last within your reach/Is your cure a bed and a woman/Or do you prefer to be bled by a leach...Why must you always search for a vacancy/In every hotel life you brush up against...." In his plaintive moan, the effect is chilling. But he goes so much deeper before he comes out -- but not necessarily on the other side. On "The House," with Lonberg-Holm's cello painting a backdrop for the melody, Joyner tells perhaps the most devastating and helpless story of a breakup ever. In fact, it's the signature tune on an album that is unbearable in its sadness and shocking in its intimacy. Its unrelentingly bleak vision is a poet, an aesthetic to tell the truth no matter how awful or humiliating or horrible. And this takes courage very few songwriters possess. Most have artifice, some have technique and craft, but almost none of them have honesty as their first strength. "The House" is fraught with a sparse, even fragmentary melody -- it falters and starts languidly, almost by mistake, turning back on itself after every verse, wondering whether or not to go on: "She slaps the left side of my face/Now I've been put back in my place/I'm supposed to be disgraced/But it feels like TV/Is this really me?/When did I lose my body/She fills a pillowcase with pills and perfume/She takes her clothes out of our room/She breaks everything she sees/Everything she can see/That just leaves me/For I've become invisible...." Comparisons here are given only for a frame of reference, as Joyner has as much in common with Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor as he does with Cohen and Foster. But a listen to Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate would not be remiss, or a read through of Foster's biography or Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. You will find the characters Joyner knows perhaps too well in his own psyche. But there is redemption in his harrowing, though elegant vision: it's in knowing that not only does he know these people, he's been them, and so have we. It is perhaps a one-sided view, but it is a tender one; and here, in the lives of those these songs represent, they need a person with a voice full of empathy and compassion to tell their story. Hotel Lives is a bleak, black, romantic masterpiece, a gothic gem, and Joyner's most audacious and gracious achievement yet.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek