Constantly touring Akron, Ohio singer songwriter Joseph Arthur started off the century strongly, releasing expertly-played, well-written albums like 2000’s Come To Where I’m From, 2004’s Our Shadows Will Remain, and 2006’s Nuclear Daydream. Since 2006, however, many of his releases, especially 2007’s underwhelming Let’s Just Be, have been weaker and haven’t been able to capture the energy of his live performances. In this regard, Arthur’s most recent release, The Ballad Of Boogie Christ, succeeds. While it may not display Arthur’s penchant for great songwriting as well as some of his early releases, it is the most dynamic release we’ve seen from him since Nuclear Daydream.
The most interesting and notable aspect about The Ballad Of Boogie Christ is its mix of new and old. As a work it is a concept album laden with strings, horns, soul songs and themes of sin and redemption and contemporary scarcity. It was funded through crowdsourcing on a PledgeMusic campaign. While the latter doesn’t explicitly affect the way the music on The Ballad Of Boogie Christ sounds, arguably, it’s at least evidence of newfound inherent motivation in Arthur’s music. It at least doesn’t sound as lifeless and apathetic as some of Arthur’s recent releases.
Opener The Currency Of Love introduces the album’s effective bombast, as strings and a doo-wop beat complement the song’s more traditional rock instrumentation. It sounds like a campier version of Arcade Fire’s Crown Of Love but with Arthur doing his best David Bowie impersonation. More subtle is the following track, Saint Of Impossible Causes, as Arthur sings about all of the different saints he needs over a sitar-laden, mostly acoustic song whose George Harrison-esque piano is its strongest percussive element. Meanwhile, the title track, a waltz, is yet another different style that Arthur explores within the first three songs, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek laundry list of all the things Christ would be doing and enjoying in the 21st century. When compared to truly religious music, or, say, awful, self-serious songs about God by Joan Osborne, The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’s title track is a refreshingly different take on, well, one of the most talked about figures of all time.
Much of this collection’s songs amount to better versions of themes and musical styles Arthur has previously explored, which makes for an effective basis for comparison and a clear reason why the album is so much stronger. In one case, the track I Miss The Zoo, Arthur offers a strikingly bare and much more emotional version of a song on his previous album, last year’s Redemption City. A song with acoustic guitars, piano and organ, The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’s version is subtle and delicate in comparison to its previous version and to anything else on this work. But for an album that presents its title character as a sinner, I Miss The Zoo, a song about the simultaneous ugliness and beauty of addiction, renders the album’s story more complex and interesting than what might be a normally bloated rock opera about Christ partying.
Meanwhile, penultimate and final tracks Famous Friends Along The Coast and All The Old Heroes are two songs that Arthur has been playing live for a while; it’s fitting that they make their studio debut on an album that so effectively mirrors Arthur’s live show. The former is a building, uplifting song of Bruce Springsteen proportions with an anthemic chorus, while the latter is a hauntingly frail acoustic lament that recalls early Wilco. In sum, new takes on old songs combined with refreshingly alive and soulful pseudo glam songs like It’s OK To Be Young / Gone make The Ballad Of Boogie Christ a diverse, rewarding listen.