Since the 1990s, Omaha singer/songwriter Simon Joyner has released dozens of albums, EPs, and singles. While that's not remarkable in itself, the consistently high quality of his material is (and the main reason he is celebrated by songwriters like Gillian Welch). The 13 songs on Step Into the Earthquake all bear his unmistakable signature: Intimate songs about often difficult subjects with a keen eye for small details and accessible melodies that emerge from folk, Americana, and rock. But there's more urgency and anger, too, as evidenced by this album's hinge track "I'm Feeling It Today." Unabashedly indulging Bob Dylan's mid-'60s period, it's a road map for the way Joyner connects listeners to his songs. It commences with small observations of his own mental and emotional states and describes ordinary events in the lives of those around him. By its mid-point, he finds meaning in virtually every contradiction in American life, from the character assassination heaped upon the civil and humanitarian rights organization Black Lives Matter to the election of Donald Trump, from random mass shootings and the NRA's systemic denial, and the politicization of virtually aspect of American culture. It's not just him feeling it today, by song's end we're all experiencing his malaise and nausea. Other songs dive deep into the intricacies of the human psyche and offer larger implications than their narratives initially let on. These include songs like the poetic, Leonard Cohen-tinged opener "Hail Mary," the elegiac "Atlanta Bypass," the brooding, sparse, blues-inflected rock of "Flash Forward to the Moon," and the haunted "Daylight." In "As Long as We're in Danger," the notion of scapegoating takes on sinister meaning as it indicts American racism and the lack of tolerance for "otherness" with bitter irony in its last line: "As long as we're in danger/America will be brave." The set closer is the 18-and-a-half-minute rocker "I Dreamed I Saw Lou Reed Last Night." Its title is a paraphrase of Dylan's 'I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine," but the music evokes the swirling dark rock of the Velvet Underground: "I dreamed I saw Lou Reed last night/He was stuck on the same bill as me...He said, well no audience is here to see you kid/You better play as if there is...." The track unfurls with descriptions of Reed's performance (real or imagined), meditations on, and lyrics from Woody Guthrie's song "Vigilante Man" made manifest in the actions of Trayvon Martin's killer George Zimmerman. Its blasted, feedback-drenched psych couldn't be further from the tenderness of opener "Hail Mary," but these bookends illustrate Joyner's gift. He embodies the entire emotional bridge-span from intimacy to violence and reveals them as equals in the fragmented American psyche. Step Into the Earthquake is one of Joyner's major works, along with Hotel Lives, Songs for the New Year, and Ghosts. It's an essential new chapter for fans, but perhaps more importantly, provides a poignant, diverse, and deeply satisfying introduction to newcomers.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek