Matthew Perryman Jones’ “Land of the Living”

This is Jones’ most complete work to date displaying depth and complexity at all levels that evidences his clear maturation as an artist. -CB

Cameron Barham

out of 10

Matthew Perryman Jones
Land of the Living
May 29, 2012
Cante Jondo

The weeping of the guitar begins.
The goblets of dawn are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar begins.
Useless to silence it.
Impossible to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
Impossible to silence it.
It weeps for distant things.
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded by five swords.

“The Guitar” by Federico Garcia Lorca

Many artists’ guitars weep endlessly void of hope from a heart all too mortally wounded.  A rare few are able to make their guitar weep from a heart that though it is mortally wounded it resonates with the hope of eventual restoration and renewal.  Matthew Perryman Jones displays this rare latter gift on his 5th full length album of original material, Land of the Living.  The title (and much of the sentiment) of the album comes from Vincent Van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo from mid August 1879 in which Van Gogh confesses:

The hours we spent together have at least assured us that we
are both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and walked
with you, I had a feeling I used to have more often than I do now,
namely that life is something good and precious which one should value,
and I felt more cheerful and alive than I have been feeling for a long
time, because in spite of myself my life has gradually become less precious,
much less important and more a matter of indifference to me, or so it seemed.

This is Jones’ most complete work to date displaying depth and complexity at all levels that evidences his clear maturation as an artist.

Matthew Perryman Jones, a native of Pennsylvania and current Nashvillian, entrusted this batch of cantes jondo (deep songs) to Cason Cooley, the multi-talented producer and musician formerly of the Normals fame, which proved to be a great choice.  He also entrusted the fate of the album to his fans through a Kickstarter campaign which proved to be significantly fruitful.  The album was completed in a unique setting in Round Top, Texas in a studio that was a converted Amish farmhouse from the 1700’s.  The band took but a week to record pressing Jones to rely on and struggle with his own Duende, a heightened state of authenticity and emotion which brings music from the soul (a concept Jones was influenced by for this record as described by Federico Garcia Lorca in his lecture “Play and Theory of Duende” in Brazil in 1933 as well as other writings).  Jones’ heightened authenticity and emotion is most powerfully experienced journeying through the 10 songs that map out the Land of the Living.

Beginnings and endings are often important clues to what will come between.  The opening and closing tracks for Land of the Living form an inclusio of sorts that lets the listener know that though the journey between the now and the not-yet will be oft rife with suffering and loss but that it will have been worth it all for what is gained along the way and most definitively in the end when death will be swallowed by life.  “Stones From the Riverbed” begins the journey in earnest with: “Silently tracing the cracks through the chaos, Grieving what cannot come back, It’s gone away, Feeling the weight of the sorrows night, You can’t find your way through the black, so you pray for light” before breaking into a beautiful mix of world music elements that transcend verbal description.  Jones later beckons: “Fall into that mystery, or it will pull you under, It’s okay, Say goodbye…” calling the listener to move from what they thought was life to the death of that truncated view only to rise in newness of sight and existence.

“Poisoning the Well” follows with the political tale of “A dead man (who) walks a crowded street, Into the place the grand assembly meets, Guilty hands stitched on their mouths, And every finger’s aimed to point you out, Strain to tell, Sound the mission bell, The magistrate is poisoning the well.”  This song brims with mystery and tension created by both the faded word pictures and the almost piercing nature of the music at times (reminiscent of the ending of the Deftones “Knife Party”).  The lingering question is whether the powers that be have actually won by shedding innocent blood or have they just been overthrown by a love that surpasses all understanding.

The pace slows a bit but the tension remains in “Won’t Let You Down Again”, a promise to an abandoned/judged friend/lover who Jones challenges/encourages: “I guess you thought you would never fall, Never walk the long way home, You’re still dancing with the bottle, Trying to break your reckless ways, But you never stop, Every night you try to blame yourself, For someone that you’re not, I won’t let you down again.”

“O Theo” is the crown jewel of Land of the Living and one of the best songs I have heard this year (This song was powerfully captured in the video recorded by Steven Bush for his Confessionals series).  Jones’ vocals reverberate with palpable weariness as he confesses: “In the half light of the city, She took off all of her clothes, I flew from the height of the mountain, Into the valley of dry bones- all alone, And my heart was still unknown, I was drunk and full of sorrows, I was longing for a home, With nowhere to go, O Theo.”  The surrounding musical arrangement and backing vocals fit the song beautifully with additional layers of lament.

Land of the Living continues with the painful but tender admission “Sleeping With a Stranger” before exploding into the pronouncement “Waking Up the Dead” in which Jones asks: “Where did I go wrong, Well I lost my head, I want to dance on fire, And be born again!”  “Keep It On the Inside” follows in which Jones almost seems to take back what he just sang: “I never want to tell you what I thought last night, Keep it on the inside, The setting stone, A fire in motion, But you don’t, Want to know it do you, It’s broken like a bone inside”

“Cancion de la Noche” (“Song of the Night”) and “The Angels Were Singing” bring the album to its intimate peak.  Jones displays the best of his craft all around on “Cancion” as he longingly begs to know: “How do you love someone?, How do you love someone so restless and torn?” before answering “You are beautiful and true, Dark and lovely, You stole my heart before I could give it away, I’ve said enough.”  The aural ache is perfectly captured as the tension builds in dynamic layers before the song gracefully resolves into quiet piano notes.  “The Angels Were Singing” tenderly displays Jones’ grief in the loss of his father.  His vocals are imbued with gracious restraint and comforting resolve.

Land of the Living appropriately closes with the powerful declaration “Land of the Living” in which Jones confronts the listener with: “No, You cannot love in moderation, You’re dancing with a dead man’s bones, Lay your soul on the threshing floor!” before bearing witness: “I heard the distant battle drum, Mockingbirds spoke in tongues, Longing for the day to come, I set my face, Forsook my fears, I saw the city through my tears, The darkness will soon disappear, Be sworn(?) by the son, I am coming home!”  As Jones has come to know, there is a hope that is firm and true that all things will be made new.  This grants one the freedom to walk amongst the valleys of sorrow and hurt now as an ambassador of this sure hope.

Matthew Perryman Jones has made the most significant album of his career thus far with Land of the Living.  This is not background music nor is it words flung together for the sake of rhyme or to showcase the music.  It is a near perfect blend of message and music that will continue to affect the listener long after the last note on the album.

Jones will play live at the Loft in Atlanta on Friday, June 22nd as part of this CD release tour.  If his show captures even a part of the Duende displayed on this album, then it will be a worthwhile experience.