Woe is Josh T. Pearson. I feel for the woman that has to deal with the undoubtedly catastrophic guilt of turning Pearson into this, the very definition of heartbreak.
Before we get into all of that though, there’s the matter of Pearson’s oft-touted back-story. Pearson once fronted Bella Union signed outfit Lift To Experience, who released only one album (2001’s monumental The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads), but one that was met with huge critical acclaim, one that was soon eulogised by none other than John Peel. And then, nothing. Pearson disappeared off to his native of Texas, where he ignored the prospect of music as a commercial venture altogether, playing only in thankless venues about town. Only slowly, over the course of a decade, via live engagements and the odd contribution to a scattering of recordings, he has built up to this, the release of his solo debut.
It hasn’t however, been the carefree, sheltered existence you might hope for our hero, as Last of the Country Gentlemen, an album recorded over just two days in Berlin, soon reveals. In fact, Pearson’s epic confessional and unsettlingly personal accounts of a past relationship address the most complex extremes of human emotion, in a voice that while once allowed to soar, is now cracked and limited, and where once accompanied by towering overdrive, now a cascade of notes drawn from an acoustic guitar.
This harrowing intimacy is established from the very beginning – ‘Thou Art Loosed’, which in a larger context functions as a sort of prelude to the rest of the album, is a requiem for a dead romance. It features, for all its weight and significance, only four lines – but then, I’ve always thought the ability to distil intense emotion into the most succinct phrase to be a sign of a great songwriter. “Don’t cry for me, baby, you’ll learn to live without me/don’t cry for me, baby, I’ll learn to live without you”, Pearson pleas, allowing the phrase to intensify with constant repetition over the course of several minutes, before the absolute sting: “… I’m off to save the world/at least I can hope”.
Aside from, perhaps, the first and final of Last of the Country Gentlemen’s seven tracks, Pearson wants you for the long haul with his songs (the shortest of these is seven minutes; the longest, thirteen). More than anything, he’s storytelling here – and he has a lot to tell. I realise I’ve been praising the economy in Pearson’s lyrics, and I hate to be totally gushing, but he also commands an almost masterful ability to turn phrase, or to apply a word’s duality of meaning in such a way, and with such indifference and so little fanfare, that you hardly have opportunity to appreciate his craft. You only have to look at epigrams such as “all of us too poor to pay attention”, or even the distorted cliché of titles like ‘Honeymoons Great, Wish You Were Her’, to recognise this.
Of them all, ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’ is my personal favourite. Just when you were convinced that the image of Pearson recording alone in shadowy corner of Berlin, with only his guitar and unkept facial hair for company was devastating enough – strings. Strings. And not in some melancholy-by-numbers studio-synthesized way – this is tragic stuff. It came as no surprise, given their working history, to hear the contributions of Warren Ellis across several parts of the album. Imagine, Dirty Three, in an alternate world, had been born the Dirty Four, and taken shape as a string quartet. This is what is presented to us on Last of the Country Gentlemen. That alone is enough to make this an incredible record.
Last of the Country Gentlemen is at the best of times, a tough listen. I’d argue that breaking partway through the record is excusable, only for fear of being drawn to the non-functioning levels of despair exhibited by Pearson himself. And if it’s this hard to appreciate, it’s maybe impossible to understand how much of a feat the act of writing it was. Josh T. Pearson’s been gone for a decade, but that’s forgivable: this is far more than the best of a decade’s work.