Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll

Josh T Pearson's music yearns for a time that no longer exists. To listen is a kind of sweet and painful nostalgia

It's usually around about this point in the calender that people start to ask me what my favourite albums of the year so far might be – a sort of mid-season taking of the musical temperature. This year, once the question has been raised, I have spoken to them about the riches already put before us – Fleet Foxes, Noah and the Whale, Nathaniel Rateliff, the Felice Brothers, for example, and the exceptional records still to come – Bon Iver and Emmy the Great, to name but two. But sooner or later I usually begin talking about Josh T Pearson's album Last of the Country Gentlemen.

A decade or so ago, Pearson was part of the Texan group Lift to Experience, a band revered for their live performances and who released a solitary but much-lauded album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, before dissolving shortly afterwards. Since then, Pearson has surfaced occasionally – in Germany, in Paris, playing shows, recording live, featuring on Bat for Lashes' 2006 album Fur and Gold, but largely staying below the waterline. Earlier this year, however, he arose again to release his first solo album, recorded over two nights in Berlin.

The seven songs on Last of the Country Gentlemen are sprawling, untended things, stories of a failed relationship, of love burnt to the quick, of rage and regret and religion. At up to 13 minutes long, these aren't so much hits with hooks and pithy pop choruses; rather these are songs that catch raggedly on your thoughts. "I'm haunted by a face that could set a thousand war ships to flight," he sings, "It floats right through my body like a fragrance on the winds of the night." What runs through this record, over and under and around these songs, is a sense of longing, a yearning for a time, a place, that no longer exists, and to listen is a kind of sweet and painful nostalgia.

A week or two back, I saw Pearson play the Union Chapel in London. It was a warm evening, the sky darkening, the room candlelit, the air charged with a kind of gentle reverence: conversation stilled, light flickering, bodies pressed close in the pews. Pearson stood alone on the stage: remarkably tall, magnificently bearded, a great teller of monologues and filthy jokes. At times, the introductions were almost as long as the songs themselves, but then: "The king is dead!" he would announce, draw his face straight, and start playing.

When the music began, the air seemed to grow thinner, spun fine with longing for a time lost and a need not met. In perhaps my favourite moment in the entire show, Pearson segued into a cover of the Melodians' song Rivers of Babylon, and restored to it a little of the lyrical grace once stolen by Boney M. "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down," it borrows from Psalm 137, "yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." In the half-light of the chapel, Pearson gnawed on this line, sang it over, and once again over, until the room fell still.

I've thought about Pearson's rendition of this song a lot since that show. How this cover version seemed to throw the rest of the performance into a kind of relief, to draw together his own trailing, long-hemmed songs and bind them with this idea of Zion, this embodiment of yearning.

I thought too about how Zion crops up occasionally in rock'n'roll, in reggae hits and Lauryn Hill songs, as a specific and deliberate reference. "Now the joy of my world is in Zion," Hill sings. But I think we can find it elsewhere, in less obvious places, too: seeping into all those stories of desire and escape and belonging, into all those tales of getting out of town and hitting the road and finding true love, unearthing great passion; into the "wire" and "velvet rims" of Springsteen's Born to Run, or the "honey" of Bob Dylan's I Want You, or Edward Sharpe's plaintive "home is whenever I'm with you"; we find it there, this dirty, commonplace Zion, in all these songs that speak of the great unmeetable yearning of the soul.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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