Joseph Arthur may have some serious problems. Or maybe he doesn't; maybe he just magnifies his regular problems for the sake of his songs. Either way, here's hoping he continues to mine his personal demons for his music, which he manages--despite his commitment to putting his personal life on tape--to keep from sounding like therapy set to music.
The first American artist signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label (by the man himself), Arthur's confessional and studied songcraft recalls the more intimate parts of Gabriel's Us, but the self-loathing is all Leonard Cohen. Come to Where I'm From, Arthur's sophomore record, is brimming with self-conscious introspection, flavored with traces of self-pity and self-hatred. But his navel-gazing lyrics are poetic in their way; they've been worked over and over in his mind, and that obsession pays off. On "Tattoo," he sings directly to the one he let slip away, wondering what the person thinks of him now: "What I heard is that you consider me dead," he deadpans through double-tracked vocals. His largely acoustic songs frequently touch on open emotional wounds like breakdowns, both of people and relationships. And usually, Arthur pins the blame for these breakdowns on himself.
The opulent production from Rick Will and T-Bone Burnett relies on diffuse, heavy-reverb, and odd percussive sounds, so much so that the handful of tracks mixed by renowned pots-and-pans producer Tchad Blake don't stick out in the least. It's a noisy record, not so much because of the instrumentation but because of the recording channels left open to catch guitar scratches and fingers sliding on strings, random squeaking and ambient sounds, and instruments bleeding into one another. Ambient sounds curl around his wisp-of-smoke voice while he paints himself as the unsympathetic protagonist of his songs. It's sort of trip-folk, but without the funkiness.
Arthur's thick instrumental layers aren't always soothing. On "Invisible Hands," the echoing drums and distant synthesizers make his nearly spoken vocals of hyperbolic woe just that much spookier. Still, the lyrics are awkward and over-the-top, with Arthur calling for Jesus to make a special trip back to Earth to die for Arthur's latest sins. But Arthur's spell is completely broken only once, on "Creation or a Stain." With its hyper tempo and noisy vocals, "Creation" is an angry tantrum in the middle of introspection--it's both unwelcome and unnecessary.
Still, Come to Where I'm From is a complete package of inner torment turned out. Arthur was nominated for a Grammy for his artwork on the packaging for 1999's Vacancy EP and did all the art for this album as well. The artwork consists primarily of muted sketches of skeletal figures, all in shades of gray and black. Come to think of it, it's a lot like the music it surrounds. Joseph Arthur performs June 19 at Gypsy Tea Room.