Coming to this album as I did at the same time as the brilliant My Crucial Execution, opens up many opportunities to compare an artist at different stages of his craft. The reason for this is that the latter is made up largely of older songs, material that I had witnessed many times live probably fifteen or so years ago. The wonderfully titled Jesus Was A Socialist, however, is all new to me, and offers an insight into David Marx as the older and wiser songwriter.
The album opens to a chaotic cacophony of sounds: double basses strut their stuff, fragile accordion flutters by, delicate piano keys and distant, distorted guitar noise fill the gaps as a half-whispered lyric is offered up. Soon, all this cements itself into a more tangible creation and ‘Revulsion In The Name of Love’ pours forth. It is a crowded song music-wise, but this somehow reflects the bewilderment that the singer is screaming out to us. As soon as you have got the song pegged, however, it winds back down into the meandering madness of disjointed sounds again. And then it’s gone. A strange and unpredictable way to open an album (as well as a million miles away from the folksy jaunt of ‘Dublin’ that opened the aforementioned My Crucial Execution). It is thus replaced by the driving, warped out garage guitar of ‘Fellatio NRA,’ and we are up and running in style. Against this more aggressive rock sound, Marx delivers a string of soundbites that seem to be centred around some sort of gun erotica, and as it builds, its harder hitting qualities are tempered by intermittent attacks of brass, whereby a more groove orientated level is attained.
After listening to the above two songs, one of the parallels that I have been looking for becomes obvious. Earlier songs by this man seem to have a lighter, dare I say, poppier quality to them – often acoustic guitar-driven songs with immediate accessibility. Here we see a darker hand at work, maybe more world-weary and reflective, the music harder hitting and slightly more rock biased. ‘Ten Rembrandts’ for instance, takes some of the elements we have already encountered, adds a gipsy violin – courtesy of regular Marx collaborator, Kat Evans – and sends us off on a more Latino driven path. It is not until we get to ‘White Trees,’ that we encounter the pure open romanticism that underlies many of the songs from his earlier days. A story of unrequited love put to a shuffling acoustic rhythm (there is even room for a short trumpet solo), the song is understated, almost minimalistic, heartfelt and simply glorious.
The combination of the less is more approach and emotions being worn openly on the singer’s sleeve, continues with what in my opinion, is the most immediate and intimate song of the album, ‘In My Time Of Dying.’ Wonderfully honest, it reflects on that one person in your life who you know is always there for you. Set to a simple street corner busker guitar, try listening to this song just more than once and not singing along – I dare you!
Not only does Jesus Was A Socialist prove to be an album of light and shade – as the earlier, heavier, darker songs give way to lighter, more immediately accessible numbers – it is full of honest reflections and everyday emotions that we can all relate to. The current music industry canon fodder darlings may think they are relating to their public when they sing of their newly acquired, high-flying, lifestyles; but when David Marx sings: “Do you still love me/Like you did last Tuesday,” kitchen-sink drama and honesty is underpinning the meaning behind it, which is to say everyday people, asking those often awkward, everyday questions.
Not being an album that settles into any particular style for too long, ‘Wedding In America’ turns a new corner by coming on like a mixture of The Pogues and a bluegrass party, the result of which delivers a short, snappy, sentimental song of devotion. ‘Times Square’ meanwhile, puts me in mind of one of those slower, early Bruce Springsteen numbers. If someone had told me that this was a track from The Wild, The Innocent and E Street Shuffle, I wouldn’t have argued (and I’m sure David wouldn’t have a problem with this comparison!). The song’s gentle, piano/organ/underpinned strut, along with its “see you around” lyric and wistful harmonica, have all the hallmarks of Asbury Park’s favourite son. And ‘According To Elvis’ continues along a similar parallel, opening as it does with that rising Hammond organ and piano-wash (so reminiscent of such early Springsteen classics as ‘Backstreets’). But by the time it gets going, ‘According To Elvis’ has very much created its own identity: something altogether much more English by being more Newhaven than New Jersey – and for all the right reasons!
Jesus Was A Socialist bows out the same way it came in, with something fairly out of keeping with a lot of what the album is about. ‘Celebrate The Cause’ is a spiky and slightly ranting diatribe; musically warped and lyrically accusatory which works as a nice end piece to a varied and slightly unpredictable album.
So what of the comparisons I was looking for between the earlier album of blasts from the past and this album of newer compositions? Well, there is still a lot of the romantic of old left here, but there is also something of a more complex presence. The rules are brushed aside at times, and the boundaries are tested. The older artist seems to be able to look deeper into the ever-present topics of love and loss, by exploring their reasoning and darker underbelly. And in so doing, Marx has come up with just as many great songs -although some will take a little longer to get into.
When you do though, you will find that a lot more depth prevails, which is why the main difference between the albums is a rather obvious one: Jesus Was A Socialist is very clearly the work of a man that has seen a lot of life and is honest enough to fill his songs with the good as well as the bad, the highs as well as the lows, the light as well as the shade.