Country music might be seen as the beating sonic heart of America’s musical heritage but it is its younger and more eclectically evolved sibling, the one aptly named Americana, which really captures the complexity and conflicted nature of the place. And if there is an album that wonderfully explores the dark underbelly of the American dream, it is Mojave. If people such as The Band made it their mission to tap into the rootsy traditions of the place, Stuart Pearson takes a much broader view, mixing the sounds of the past with more recent styles. The result is a collection of songs that acts as a journey through past and present, reality and imagined western mythology, what was and what might have been. Perhaps even what is yet to come.
Opening with the elegantly titled Like A House With Broken Windows, the scene is set via its cowled, lilting, balladry, through chiming cascades of strings and resonant twangs of older guitar sounds, the distant wail of steel pedals and the timeless narrative style of classic storytelling. But having set the scene perfectly, he immediately flips expectations and delivers the sort of stomping, crunching, blues workout that Tom Waits would have sold his favourite battered hat for. Down The Ravine, is odd (that’s a good thing right?) avant-garde and unexpected but between these first two songs you sort of get a sense of the roadmap for the album, the sort of extremes on either side of the spectrum to which Pearson is willing to travel.
And then, Dragging The Lake (On the Day of The Dead) has hints of the other two artists who along with Waits make up the apocalyptic pantheon of minor musical deities who look over these bruised and blasted genres, namely Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. A slightly funky, murder ballad and a wonderful indication of, not only Pearson’s musical tastes but the adventure and inventiveness of the way that he constructs songs.
The chain gang rhythms and twisted anthemics of Are They Digging Your Grave (or Are They Digging Mine?) is surprisingly melodic considering the cold hard question being posited. But contemplation of our own demise is something that we do right from the moment that we understand that we aren’t immortal, and if you are going to muse on such a troubling aspect, then why not do so prompted by such a cool (to the point of ice-cold) song?
You Don’t See Me (Jimmy Crack Corn) again wanders the same dystopian wasteland of a west that never existed or one that, if it does exist, is somewhere halfway between Hell and Houston, America and Armageddon! It growls and grooves, struts and swaggers, chills and charms in equal measure yet it does so with wonderful minimalism, once again proving the point, if proof were needed, that less is definitely more. (And, that being the case, that this much less is so much more.)
The Interstate clatters cooly along on a shuffling yet underplayed rockabilly beat and jews harp bounce as Pearson seems to whisper in the listener’s ear, part intimate and conversational, part demonic and menacing. A soundtrack to a journey through the strangeness of a Lynchian landscape, half Old West, half imagination, half road trip, half troubled dream…and if you are worried that the maths doesn’t add up, then you need to open up your mind and get with the musical program. This is not an album of facts or absolutes, it is one of paradox and warped realities… if you haven’t grasped that by now, you should return to more conventional climes and more conformist music.
Although having said that, One Cut feels like much more conventional music, Hunter Lowry’s hushed tones deliver an almost lullaby lilt but a closer inspection of the lyrics reveals a sinister and black-souled vibe at work. Again, it is the minimalist approach that does all of the real work – a strummed and simple chord progression being the only accompaniment, so sparse and staccato that the vocals, a blend of sweet sound and dark intent, become a framed focal point throughout.
By contrast, You Never Really Know is melodic and groovesome but of course, it comes at you under a veil of brooding thought, another contemplation of death, or at least a reminder of how big a role the fickle finger of fate plays in our lives, as able to open doors of opportunity as it is to trip you up and usher in your own oblivion. A theme that continues into Tomorrow’s Going To Hunt You Down, again reminding us that, to quote a wise man, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley,” or to put it another way, destiny is no friend of moral men, it likes nothing better than messing with your plans. A fact rammed home sonically by the song’s squalling violins and dramatic percussive punctuation.
The album reaches its final destination with the very Cohen-esque Dance Skeletons Dance, an ode to embracing your failings, to letting your quirks fly free, of giving up the fight to be good and moral and upstanding and giving in to your baser urges and it communicates all of this over an infectious and vibrant, relentless and raucous four-four groove. Harmonies wax and wail, the ghosts of Spanish flamenco players add skittering percussion and the song takes us to the end of the album in an unwavering and purposeful fashion.
Stuart Pearson has covered a lot of musical ground over many albums. He has embraced and explored all manner of genres. But it is here that, for me at least, everything seems to come together perfectly and I doubt that he could have made such a unique and eclectic album without journeying through everything from folk to bluegrass to country to psychedelia first, all of which add tone and texture and taste to this album. But perhaps the most striking aspect of an album weight down with striking aspects is his voice, a deep, rich, resonant baritone of a type that is rarely heard anymore. Perfect for imbuing the album with the right depth and delicious darkness (I’m aware that I have used the word dark/ness a lot, but why reach for clever descriptions when that one is perfectly poignant?) that makes Mojave such a rich and rewarding experience.