Look at the man in that picture up there. Really get up close and study it. Is that what a man in love looks like? Unkempt beard, ragged, flowing hair, bowing down almost in supplication, desperately holding some young girl in a black hat (his, most likely) and tassled leather waistcoat, with just the slightest hint of tit poking out, uninterested in anything but the camera – or whoever is watching. This is a snapshot of a man on the brink.
Last of the Country Gentlemen is not easy listening. It’s music best appreciated with a three-quarters empty bottle (emhatically not one-quarter full) of Jack Daniel’s on one side of the bed, and a girl you don’t know on the other. It’s hard to even call this country music; it’s stretched and warped beyond all recognition. It’s yer grandpappy’s old Hank Williams 78s, played at half-speed; it’s Springsteen Nebraska-fying Joanna Newsom’s Ys; Joni Mitchell’s (Johnny Walker) Blue. Song structures are as knotted as Josh T. Pearson‘s greying beard, and choruses are few and far between. Pearson carries the burden of this album almost entirely alone – it was allegedly recorded in a couple of days, with its multiple ten-plus minute tracks being finished in no more than two takes each – and therefore the responsibility for all of its drama is all his; when he stutters his way through a line about a heart losing it’s “b-b-b-beat” on ‘Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ’, it packs more of a punch than any orchestra could manage.
And yet, when other instruments do make a fleeting appearance, they’re devastating. ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’ is sad enough – a guilt-stricken admission of infidelity, which sees Pearson agonise “what will I tell my pastor, friends, my family or said blushin’ bride?” – but when the strings (provided, in part, by The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis) float into the mix, you (and most likely Pearson himself) can’t help but feel grateful for the relief.
My girlfriend, funnily enough, does not like this album. She claims it sounds like the work of a self-obsessed sleazebag, whose inability to maintain a real relationship is matched only by his inability to write a song with a hook. And y’know, she’s probably right – she did also manage to guess, sight unseen, that Pearson would have a sprawling mess of facial hair. If even half of these lyrics are true, no one in their right mind could forgive their author – but damned if the smart-ass didn’t already anticipate that on album centrepiece ‘Sorry With a Song’, on which rhythm and metre take a backseat to naked Catholic confession; taking up an entire side of the album’s double-vinyl release.
Yet few self-obsessed sleazebags could create art at this level of naked honesty, introspection and beauty; there isn’t a note, word or space wasted here. The stream of consciousness that these songs follow is entirely justified – whose thoughts are ever straight a during a break-up, or a breakdown? Pearson has said he never wants to listen to this album again, but he doesn’t have to – he lived it. But now it’s ours to cherish, to scold and to adore. Last of the Country Gentlemen may not absolve his sins – what could? – but it goes a long way towards explaining them. That it’s one of the greatest and most compelling albums to emerge from this decade so far certainly helps.