First things first: Nebraskan singer-songwriter Simon Joyner has been releasing albums since 1993 (he’s purportedly Conor Oberst’s songwriting idol) and his voice sounds an awful lot like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. For most artists, the latter fact would be grounds for a “blessing versus curse” debate, but Joyner seems to know that sometimes the only way to transcend what came before you is to embrace it, and Skeleton Blues is a frequently compelling intertwining of influence and genetics that traffics in both Americana and the same mix of woozy musicality and off-kilter poetry shared by both Cohen and Reed, and yet it still manages to stake out its own musical territory.
Recorded in one weekend in a vacant Omaha train station with Joyner’s working Omaha band, the Fallen Men, Skeleton Blues is loose from top to bottom, with Joyner’s meditations on Midwestern rootlessness and broken-down American dreams the omnipresent grout filling in the spaces in the pedal-steel-and-tinkling-piano backing tracks. And there’s certainly space to spare. Most of the songs clock in at over five minutes, with three of them longer than eight. It’s an over-indulgence that seems the result of the process employed, but it places an undue amount of pressure on Joyner’s lyrics; more often than not, his approach is more mud-at-the-wall than emotionally precise, simply because he has to hold up his end of the bargain. Yet this unevenness is surprisingly tempered: Every song contains a few moments of quiet grace and out-of-nowhere hooks that serve to reign in both the musicians and the listener.
And as it turns out, this inconsistency may very well less be the result of process than of a perhaps over-ambitious approach to the music. This is because for one eight-minute stretch, Skeleton Blues manages to distill all it seems to desire into a truly outstanding piece of music. On “The Only Living Boy in Omaha,” Joyner and the Fallen Men meet at a restrained halfway point; the band stays focused and Joyner keeps his overabundant tendencies reined-in and intimate, focusing on the micro, allowing the pictures he’s painting the space to breathe. In this collective specificity, the song crystallizes into the broken beauty it strives for.
It begins with a bright, buzzing organ loop over which Joyner sings, “You pray in the storm, I’ll sing to static on the radio./ You there in the amber, I’m the clay./ I just pulled out of a city I no longer know./ Who says don’t bother writing unless you’re dead/ or in the family way.” After less than two minutes, the backing arrangement drops out and a string section is introduced, and Joyner starts talking about some sort of spiritual arrival that he seems to have made but can’t quite yet understand: “But if everything rolls around again/ does that mean we are free?/ If everything rolls around again/ does that mean we don’t have to follow the grail,/ we can go ahead and swallow our tails/ and then just wait and see?” And then, as the song seems ready to end, the band ambles back in and gives it back its spine, gently amplifying both sonically and emotionally until the moment the track’s different elements finally all swirl together and Joyner’s voice sails high above them in a half-lament, half-laugh even he seems not to know he had in him; when he finally retreats to let the music go, his melody is taken up by a violin. It’s an enthralling gut-punch that nearly elevates the entire record to greatness.
At their best, all of Joyner’s reference-available predecessors had/have the ability to craft songs that seemed loose but were actually tight, compact meditations and statements. Skeleton Blues is a record with a number of these moments, but it’s finally too unwound not to bend under either the emotional weight it desires to carry or the logistics of its creation: Even after multiple listens, the record’s thematic concerns remain too muddled to escape becoming a bit stagnant. It’s hard not to appreciate on some level, but you end up wishing Joyner would’ve gotten on the train and seen where it’d taken him instead of just kicking around the station.