Josh T. Pearson: “Last of the Country Gentlemen”

“Don’t cry for me,” Josh T. Pearson consoles his lover, mere seconds into his new record Last of the Country Gentlemen, “For I’m off to save the world.” Granted, if ever there was a good reason for leaving your honey behind, saving the world would probably be it. The trouble is, it becomes evident pretty quickly that his lover is his world– and Pearson is just too weak and frail to treat her right, too much of an asshole to be “the savior [she] so desperately needs.”

But thank God he realizes it, anyway– and thank God he’s documented the whole painful scenario in an album-length suite of broken hearts and exorcised demons, frail humanity and savage grace. This thing plays like a divorce album for those of us who know we’re too broken on the inside to save anybody– much less the whole world; it’s a break-up album for those whose very souls cry out for redemption. And as such, it’s an absolute ass-kicker– a devastatingly dark marvel, an unfurling of sadness the likes of which I haven’t heard in quite some time. Easy listening it is not, but if you ever begin to doubt the true power of music and art, just put this thing on: It will run your heart through a shredder and return it you you in pieces (with “holes that would let the Light in,” as Sam Phillips might say).

So yes, in a sense, this is a record to put on the shelf with Blood on the Tracks, Shoot Out the Lights, Sea Change, and A Boot and a Shoe, but those comparisons seem somehow to miss the mark. That Dylan album, for example, is perfectly precise in its lyrics and music alike, pop songs that are battered and bruised but pop songs nevertheless. Pearson’s album is more like the sound of something wild and primal unleashed; indeed, it’s fitting that the first song is called “Thou Art Loosed,” as everything that follows seems like an inevitable journey of the soul, over which the singer himself has no control but is instead held in its sway, a ghastly trance of brutal heartbreak.

Actually, it reminds me– rather perversely, perhaps– of something like Astral Weeks, a record that was traditional in its form but completely unhinged in its performances, elevating it into something at one primitive and deeply spiritual. Similarly, Last of the Country Gentlemen plays like feverish gothic country, only it blows the bottom out; song itself cannot contain these demons, and so the songs stretch out, most of them well past ten minutes, and sort of meander between different recognizable structures and phrases; it’s as though the music itself is lost in the wilderness, yet it never seems to ramble without purpose. When the conclusion comes, it seems inevitable– as though these songs couldn’t possibly have lead anywhere else.

So yes, indeed, this thing is almost stodgily old-fashioned: There are seven songs only, but most of them are quite long, and the album demands to be listened to in sequence. There is nothing here to offer a crutch for those with short attention spans; though there is some light accompaniment here and there– most notably some spectral violin from Warren Ellis— it feels like a solo composition through and through, and there is never anything but the song itself to hold listeners in thrall. Let it be said that the material here is completely up to the challenge; those who truly stop and listen– as the music demands you to– will hang on to every word.

Speaking of words, the album title itself sounds to me almost like the kind of phrase Flannery O’Connor might have been drawn to; if the album speaks to anything, though, it’s the terrible insufficiency of being a true “country gentlemen,” how greatly such a distinction would lack were we even capable of achieving it. And the narrator of these songs is surely no gentleman; he’s something closer to a monster, actually, at least if the devastating, monstrously soul-shaking drunkard’s lament “Woman When I’ve Raised Hell” is any indication; meanwhile, “Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ” is a hypnotic and frankly stunning song that blurs the line between profanity and piety, somehow revealing the singer to be completely fallen and also deeply sympathetic in his concern for a lover’s soul. The most tragic and wondrous thing on the album, at least to my ears, is “Honeymoon is Great, I Wish You Were Her,” a tale of infidelity and utter anguish.

But there is something strangely beautiful about all this sadness; indeed, this isn’t a record that wallows in misery so much as it confronts human frailty head-on, and demands that the listener do the same. What it amounts to is music that cries out, with every second and every note, for grace and redemption– and if Pearson can’t provide that, so what? At least he’s honest about it– “sweetheart, I ain’t your Christ”– and besides, the cry itself is enough to stir the soul, making Last of the Country Gentlemen a thing of perfectly broken, holy sadness.


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