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.

Contributor

Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Laura Barton on songs that conjure bird-like ascending happiness

Laura Barton: They are rare, those songs that conjure that bird-like ascending happiness, that feeling of winging wildly across the white

Laura Barton

28, Mar, 2008 @12:27 AM

Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll
Typical of the 'high, lonesome sound' of the Ozarks, Almeda Riddle's singing always puts the song first, never getting in front of it

Laura Barton

23, Sep, 2010 @9:29 PM

Hail, Hail Rock'n'Roll
There's something choral, plaintive and lost about the female singers in Mountain Man – a seriousness, a strangeness, a searchingness

Laura Barton

17, Jun, 2010 @9:40 PM

Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll: Laura Barton on when a song replaces a friend

Some songs can fill the role of a best friend, says Laura Barton.

Laura Barton

21, Sep, 2007 @10:59 PM

Article image
Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll
More than any other writer, Van Morrison seems blessed with a transformational power to bring a beautiful vision to even the most humdrum objects and events

Laura Barton

31, Mar, 2011 @9:33 PM

Laura Barton on Bruce Springstein

Springsteen has the curious power to make an arena seem no bigger than the back room of a pub; he is a bottle labelled Drink Me, says Laura Barton

Laura Barton

05, Jun, 2008 @11:10 PM

Article image
Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll
Laura Barton: Tom Waits lets the song wind his wife around him – warmly, tenderly, with the delicate touch of a man who can't quite believe his luck

Laura Barton

02, Dec, 2010 @10:44 PM

To listen to Fleet Foxes' music is to enter the magical kingdom, says Laura Barton

Laura Barton: To listen to Fleet Foxes' music is to be somehow enchanted, to enter the magical kingdom, to step through the wardrobe

Laura Barton

03, Jul, 2008 @11:07 PM

Laura Barton likens the magnitude and awe of the Mississippi river to music

I look at the Mississippi and I feel the same sense of magnitude and awe, of uncontainability and possibility, as when I think of music, says Laura Barton

Laura Barton

22, May, 2008 @11:10 PM

Article image
Laura Barton on dancing

Slowly, you lose your dancing innocence. It becomes about the performance, about shaking your tail-feather for anyone who's watching, says Laura Barton.

Laura Barton

10, Nov, 2006 @10:20 AM