Simon Joyner - "Out into the Snow" (Out into the Snow)
After 11 albums and a few production upgrades, there’s still something reassuringly ragged about Simon Joyner. Contemporaries like Bill Callahan or Stuart A. Staples are much more adept at either incorporating their mythic elements into a distinct persona or simply sounding resigned to their fates; Joyner can’t keep up a façade or shrug things off, no matter how hard he tries. It’s this tricky, naked balance between poet and bleeding heart that keeps me coming back to his work, and the lush, full-band arrangements that he’s been exploring this decade have only further blurred the lines.
Starting around Hotel Lives, Joyner has moved away from straightforward sentiment and energetic performance, instead settling into lengthy, abstract narratives and shorter sketches that, at their worst, aimlessly mark time between the grander explorations. At this point, the tales and aphorisms of his older work seem downright quaint. The new albums might be more intimidating, yet when the Joyner of old sneaks through, and he always does, those sentiments are granted a richer and heavier emotional wallop. I wasn’t crazy about his last album, Skeleton Blues, but there’s no way that Joyner could have pulled off the stunning 10-minute solo acoustic closer “My Side of the Blues” in the ’90s. Callahan or Staples would never try a line as raw as “She made crying seem like Christmas Eve” without somewhat distancing themselves, and where the old Joyner may have either oversold or shrunk the scale, he completely owned it and kept it grounded in the larger story.
This is the context of Joyner on Out into the Snow – an artist who, painting on increasingly larger canvasses, sometimes sounds lost, but at his best, manages to deliver raw nerve emotionality without sounding indulgent. Joyner wastes no time with the nine-minute opener “The Drunken Boat,” a metaphorical tale that captures the appeal of escape while surprisingly offering little sympathy to those who take it. After detailing hardships on land and singing a refrain that describes the lure of the sea, Joyner moralizes, “Why waste time learning to swim / When it’s how you float that matters?” The obvious futility of the statement cuts right through the narrator’s actions, and when the refrain returns, the escape it offers rings hollow. The first two-thirds of the song amble over a typically pleasant country backing, but soon before the moral is introduced, Joyner drops everything but the strings, singing the last three minutes over a downright gorgeous arrangement by violinist Laraine Kaizer. It’s a shift that, when coupled with how Joyner has structured the tale, absolutely floors, and it makes “The Drunken Boat” one of the best tracks he’s done to date.
The rest of the album isn’t as daring or unique. Joyner mostly follows the Hotel Lives template and reaps the same rewards. I hold out hope for another curveball along the lines of 2004’s fractured, shambling Forgotten Blues, but Out into the Snow is top-shelf Joyner, which isn’t anything to complain about. Kaizer’s string arrangements reappear to great effect on “Ambulances,” a track most notable for Joyner actually emoting and stretching his voice, which might give pause to those who can’t see past his frequently off-key, warbling vocals. It’s their loss, and always has been. Music is too important to leave to the good singers.