Those only familiar with Joseph Arthur from his previous album, 2000’s Come To Where I’m From, might peg him as an edgy solo artist with a slightly monochromatic palette. Redemption’s Son paints a more complicated and interesting picture.
This time, Arthur seems intent on testing his range as a songwriter. Of the sixteen tracks here, only one, “Termite Song” loses its slender melodic thread in atmospherics. The remaining cuts reveal subtlety and a sense of adventure in a varied program of acoustic-based ballads, hook-laden pop and ominous techno-rockers. He chooses to enrich his guitar-bass-drums foundation with synthesizer and mellotron, and to layer multitrack harmony vocals behind his own expressive, whispery rasp.
It all holds together surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to Arthur’s own production. There are hints of former mentor Peter Gabriel’s studio touches — most obviously in the intros to “I Would Rather Hide” and “Nation Of Slaves” — but the overall conception here is more relaxed, more attuned to the earthbound qualities of the distinct little four-minute arcs.
Highlights include a trio of fresh takes on proven models: the Dylanesque “Dear Lord”, which dances nimbly through the “I Want You” framework, “Innocent World”, which evokes a grittier Donovan; and “In The Night”, T. Rex in a rhythmically looser mode.
In a more personal, haunting vein, “Permission”, with its angry threats and clangor, successfully explores Trent Reznor territory. This aspect of the album finds its somber culmination in the death-haunted “Blue Lips”, a stark snapshot of bereavement. Here, as elsewhere, Arthur’s vision escapes morbidity through the consolations of religious faith — a faith, to be sure, of hard questions, as in the one that closes the album: “What you gonna do with your life?” It’s delivered by a multitracked chorus that comfortably fits pop-song conventions, even as it lyrically challenges pop-song platitudes.