You might say Josh T Pearson has baggage. He’s pretty upfront about it. In the song ‘Country Dumb’ – a great, sprawling, heartbleeding tear-wrencher in which the singer lashes out at himself by way of an apology for being such a predictable loser (and for being, frankly, unworthy of love), he offers a grim piece of self-analysis to the lover he is about to spurn. It starts mistily, with the singer suggesting that he comes from a long line of dreamers. But, as the song progresses, the shadows lengthen.
We’re the kind who start the books but who just do not finish
We’re the kind who have 10,000 would-be-great, ungrateful, too-long, run-on songs
We're the kind still stuck in the past but who see well into the circle future
You see I miss you woman and baby you ain’t even yet gone
On paper, that final line might read as if Pearson is singing with tongue in cheek, but that’s not how it sounds. The song – and the album which contains it – is a masterpiece of melancholy, a lost telegram of flickering faith and burned-out hope. As advertised, the songs are “ungrateful, too long, run-on” numbers which sound closer to confessional sketches for hymns than they do to pop music.
Frankly, they don’t have much to do with rock’n’roll either, being almost devoid of rhythm or forward propulsion; unless the rock’n’roll you have in mind is something by Lou Reed at his most emotionally open, something grim by Leonard Cohen, or maybe the recordings Chris Bell made after leaving Big Star, on finding himself trapped between the oblivion of drugs and religious enlightenment. The Last Of The Country Gentlemen has the strung-out feeling of Neil Young’s On The Beach. It is, be warned, tough stuff.
This is Pearson’s solo debut. His first album, 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, with Texas trio Lift To Experience, has assumed mythic status, being both greatly revered and almost unheard. It purported to be a concept album about the end of the world, with Texas as the promised land, and was a chewed-up, dog-eared testament to Pearson’s troubled mind, with splintered sheering riffs which sounded like industrial machinery. A full consideration of its merits would include reference to Pearson’s worldview, which is drenched in religion as a result of an upbringing with a lay-preacher for a father. So, as well as being familiar with the romantic fatalism of Hank Williams, Pearson is in the habit of picking the scabs from his conscience, as his emotional state pinballs between lost and found.
The implosion of Lift To Experience left Pearson with the nagging sense that he had something great to live up to. What happened next is a blur. Reading between the lines of Country Gentlemen, you might speculate that strong drink was involved, along with further self-examination. What seems to be true is that Pearson retreated from the music business, moving from Denton, Texas, to a shack in Tehuacana (pop. 307), doing odd jobs to get by. He sold his possessions, keeping only a laptop and a stack of DVDs, while pondering how to make another record. His then label boss, Simon Raymonde of Bella Union, reportedly suggested to him that he put aside his worries about matching up to his debut, and write throwaway material, to ease himself back into recording. He did, only to shelve these songs when the old doubts about artistic merit began to bite. Virtually unknown in the US, he lived illegally in Berlin for a while (this album was recorded at the city’s Klangbild studios, with Martin J Fiedler engineering), before settling in Paris; emerging occasionally for live dates, including some with the Dirty Three. Yes, he has an intimidating beard.
The above may or may not be accurate: the chronology is a jumble, and this is a man with a keen sense of his own myth. But what is plain is that Country Gentlemen is not Pearson’s attempt to make himself more acceptable to mainstream tastes.
It’s a break-up record. On another level, it’s a crack-up record.
It starts quietly and mournfully, with ‘Thou Art Loosed’, which has a faintly Eastern feel, with Pearson singing from the bowels of a lament. Two minutes in, his voice cracks into focus, sounding like Ian McCulloch as he sings “’cause I’m off to save the world… at least I can hope.” He is whistling in the dark, but that line, “at least I can hope” is one which haunts the record’s seven songs.
‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ follows: a quite extraordinary thing, wrung out of weariness and devotional imagery, which slides, over 12 agonising minutes, into a dark echo of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Hello Darkness My Old Friend’. Pearson is habitually so down on himself, so passive-aggressive, so lonesome and ornery, that it’s not always clear who is doing the breaking up, but here he administers his au revoir with cruel clarity. "I can bring you to the water," he sings, "But I sure as hell can't make you drink/It ain't Christmas time, it's Easter honey bunny, and I ain't the saviour you so desperately need."
The grandiosity of the lyric, and its pulp, Southern gothic cadences, are like something by Nick Cave, on or around The Boatman’s Call. That is Cave’s best record, but is disliked by its author, because the songs are so emotionally naked. Country Gentlemen is positively bare-assed by comparison, mostly comprising spare guitar and muttered vocals, with Pearson’s lyrics existing at a level of intimacy and self-revelation that is painful. Cave sidekick Warren Ellis adds neurotic violin on two tracks – the vicious, apocalyptic break-up song ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’, and the astonishing ‘Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her’, which chronicles the author’s emotional infidelity over an epic 13 minutes. It feels shorter than that, but it also seems to last a lifetime, with Pearson allowing himself some moments of levity: he’s not daydreaming in the song, he’s “day drinking”, and “it’s drunk driving my mind’s eye blind”.
On these two songs, Pearson’s country roots are apparent, but there’s no hint of Music Row to sugar the pill. The bleakness is served straight. It’s gospel music, but with no sense of elevation or salvation. When the tone is confessional, as on ‘Sorry With A Song’, there’s no hint that he expects forgiveness; the song would work equally well if Pearson was addressing God, and not apologising to a woman, but in either case the mood is of self-abasement and regret, not hope. True, there is some faint mirth on the closing tune, ‘Drive Her Out’, a slurred psalm from under the floorboards, with Pearson repeating the phrase “could you help me drive her out of my mind?” He could be addressing God, though the tenor of the tune, with a rolling piano circling round a whispered vocal, suggests that on this occasion, the object of his devotion is bottle-shaped.
Still, Pearson does allow himself a little joke. “I know that Jesus saves,” he croons, beautifully, on ‘Country Dumb’, “cuz nothing in this cold, lonely world is for free.”