Music For the Dark Corners of the Day

Rosemary Moss reviews John Moreland’s gig at Islington’s Union Chapel on May 8th.

With the dusky light withdrawing through the stained glass of the Union Chapel, Islington, John Moreland fittingly assures his audience to ‘Bless our busted hearts sinking into the dark’. On this pregnant May evening, both the crowd and the space are attuned to Moreland’s evensong, which encompasses tortured love and loss.

Whilst still only 31, this ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ is an old-timer on the circuit. This Country is lauded for its thoughtful and genuine music, Moreland’s Southern drawl paying faithful homage to his roots in Tusla, Oklahoma. The musician’s persona is simple; after an understated entrance, Moreland and his guitar occupy one corner of the stage, asymmetric with the altar. Moreland is the ultimate unorthodox preacher, complete with conventional ‘Americana’ vestments. In place of a cassock, he sports a baggy, all-black tee-shirt and trousers, inked arms, and his biretta, a beige cap drawn low enough to muffle his features and shroud his eyes.

Image courtesy of wsj.com

Despite such reserve, it is Moreland’s total musical immersion that makes him so compelling. He seems to be singing to his withdrawn self; the programme is practically uninterrupted, only occasionally punctuated with a muffled ‘thnkq’. However, he delivers his sardonic sermon with a full-blooded and colourful voice: a grizzly but resonant lower range, and a mournful strain in his higher pitches. In contrast to his recent album Big Bad Luv (mostly a bombastic and rollicking record), his set has been carefully curated for the Union Chapel, comprised of gentle ballads from Moreland’s past records. The audience is treated to a spread of songs from High on Tulsa Heat (2016), In the Throes  (2013) and Earthbound Blues (2011). The sustained pace of Moreland’s set is utterly hypnotic. Songs seem to merge; they refuse to ‘stick out’, and instead symphonically convene and carve shapes into the memory.

Image courtesy of americansongwriter.com

That being said, Moreland’s poetic craft cannot avoid branding certain lyrics onto the mind. Many songs, like ‘Latchkey Kid’ and ‘Old Wounds’, merge visceral emotion (in lines such as ‘If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song’ and ‘wreck me completely’) with spiritual disorientation (Moreland is ’too lost to tell my temples from my toes’). This is a troubled voice, able to express itself with eloquence when it wants to take a ‘diamond from the sky put it in your ring’; it is also a voice that finds difficulty in grappling with the past and its ‘favourite versions of you in a photograph’ (‘American Flags in Black and White’). The overall effect is cathartic: it feels as though both singer and audience are attempting to expel contradictions and confusions that are awfully ‘human’.

Moreland is also admirably proficient on his instrument, pouring muscle and nerve through the strings of his guitar. His skill is particularly evident on ‘Blacklist’, where his strums waterfall through minor chords under a relentless, one-note melody. Acoustically, the church is a dream: Moreland’s mournful harmonies seem to float in the air almost infinitely.

Moreland’s ending to the show perfectly captures the blunt resonance of his style. He immediately clips his final, aching lyric, ‘Don’t you feel that the truth comes at the price of your youth?’ (from the song ‘No Glory in Regret’), with a throwaway ‘thnkq very much’. A man who could not be earthier mumbles an ending to his show about life’s fragility and fleeting nature. This is music for the dark corners of the day, for hours when we must force ourselves to confront mortality and regret.


Featured image courtesy of claytonflores.blogspot.co.uk