For those who've followed Simon Joyner's illustrious career as an outsider and underground figure relentlessly looking into the dark side of everything -- not for its own sake but for what it has to teach -- Skeleton Blues will be a surprise. Recorded with his working band the Fallen Men, Joyner's made his first honest-to-the-roaming-ghosts-of-all-things-that-matter rock & roll record. Those hoping for another of his quiet, sparse, introspective recordings need not fear, though they will be shocked. The set opens with "Open Window Blues," and what you hear is a younger Bob Dylan, still hungry, still trying to wrestle with his shadowy angel (muse), fronting a group as direct and no-nonsense as the Velvet Underground (circa Doug Yule) or the early Television; the Band's wondrous ambiguity and sense of history would have been ripped apart by these songs. Guitarists Dale Hawkins' and Alex McManus' interplay is both meaty and spooky. It feels like they don't work with the songs so much as set them apart and try to explode every last word, and they come close to exploding in reaction to: "But my smokestack eyes withholding rain, oppose/Another burning wheat field full of crows." The sung meter is just off enough to allow those wicked six strings to dig through the rhythm section and react with an open hostility, it pushes the singer and finally takes over, revealing what he's afraid to say. Think "John Coltrane's Stereo Blues" or Days of Wine & Roses by the Dream Syndicate but more subtle.
"You Don't Know Me" is a kind of comfort, with an easy, shuffling rock beat, but it's not, really, it's just a different frame for words that seem to dig underneath the skin, under the marrow in order to project: "The only thing worse than blacking out/Is waking up where you are/I don't belong to anyone, I don't belong to anything/I put my breath into my song/I keep my death in front of me..." The whinnying pedal steel, the guitars exchanging fluid lines, a piano, a glockenspiel, all of them holding up the tired, broken protagonist and letting him see that things aren't going to change any time soon. "Medicine Blues" is a surreal look at how we struggle, with our demons in the quest for beauty; we fight, bitch, scream and moan until we cave in and surrender. Then and only then is grace and the perception of real beauty possible. The band gives him a big bottom end, chords and knotty lead lines with a steady stomping 4/4 to make Joyner have to stretch to express. It's as loud as the man gets. The album closer, two ballads, include "Epilogue in D," where Joyner allows the band to simply float behind him on his acoustic guitar. But it's in "My Side of the Blues" that the Joyner we recognize returns to close the shop and bind the wounds. It's over ten-minutes long and it's just him and an acoustic guitar: "And the pendulum doesn't swing for passion/Even horror can't make those stubborn hands freeze/But sometimes just a soft light lit in a bedroom/Can bring a tired traveler to his knees...The trees forgave the fire that went on burning/Until hope was all that was left when the smoke cleared/And I'll forgive her body for deserting/As soon as I recall why mine is still here." The tune stutters, falls, and eventually whispers to a close, leaving the listener full of ideas, notions and an inexplicable feeling that somehow, now that it's over and done, everything has changed. What remains is the silence, and the feeling of some ghost at her shoulder. This is the path Joyner has been walking on for decades, and it seems that the road and wounds have resulted in his masterpiece.