CD Review – Will Johnson “Scorpion”
Will Johnson likes to keep busy, last year saw a Centro-matic album, this year the New Multitudes collaboration working up songs from Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, he plays drums and sings with Monsters of Folk, has just had a painting show and amidst all this he spent five days in the studio recording ‘Scorpion’.
With the last couple of albums, from ‘Dual Hawks’, through ‘Eyas’ and ‘Candidate Waltz’, Centro-matic have been turning their back on the lo-fi ethos that sustained most of their career up to that point. The band has been getting tighter and – shock horror – more danceable, but with that change the space for the quietness that was present even in defiance of the supposed schism between Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, the Jekyll to its Hyde has disappeared, possibly to reappear like some culverted river at some point in the future, maybe not.
In any case, it has only disappeared from Centro-matic, not from the broader picture as evidenced by the album Will Johnson made with Jason Molina where both bolstered up the great vein of poetic melancholy with which they are, to a greater or lesser degree, shot through. And Scorpion. That too mines that pensive, reflective strand of Will Johnson’s psyche. The means of articulating the themes that run through the album are those to which he has fruitfully turned in the past: the blurred, distorted vocal, the self-harmonies, the lolling, heavily damped drums, the alternately blunt and gossamer acoustic guitar and the overdriven and heavily reverbed Rhodes, all feature in the palette.
As usual the lyrics are like a thicket you have to cut your way through and they’re kept pushed back a little in the mix, making us work so much harder to decipher what’s going on but when those startlingly beautiful images do loom out of the murk, coming at you like a giant iceberg, they are all the more distilled and refined for it, and he is a wonderfully imagistic lyricist and Scorpion is an album on which he finds himself in full flower, whether it be talking of the ‘golden beast of love’ on the opening track ‘You Will Be Here, Mine’ or speaking of ‘Winter’s long release’ on the title track.
Working with Matt Pence and Scott Danborn on the record might seem like a cop out. What makes it not just a gestural Centro-matic record? In fact, it’s a masterstroke as it allows him the sure-footedness to put down these tracks succinctly in the minimum of time and the maximum of immediacy and emotional presence. The lyrics do matter, as does the singing. Sometimes we forget about the singing, forget about the voice but his voice is an incredible vehicle. Tattered and glorious, Will Johnson’s voice is capable of wrenching every drop of emotional resonance from his texts. On this record more than anything he has recorded before it strikes me that his singing is almost church-like, it is replete with a belief in what it is that he is singing. The sparseness of most of the arrangements, the folk-like ‘Blackest Sparrow, Darkest Night’ and ‘Winter Screen Four’ throw this into the headlights but perhaps too there is a mellowness to the subject matter that points us in that direction.
Overall, it’s an incredibly beautiful album, which – as ever – he tries to mask with a certain brusqueness of approach, an almost conversational engagement with the listener but don’t be kidded, this is as intense as poetry gets and it make for a close to perfect record.