Joseph Arthur advocates instability. He doesn’t believe in comfort zones. If his seat in life gets too cushy, he’ll pull the chair out from under himself just to remember how hard the ground feels after a fall.
Most recently, this mindset landed Arthur facedown somewhere on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, armed with not much more than a guitar, some clothes and a few rough demos.
It’s not that he wasn’t enjoying a successful music career out of his home base in New York City. After Peter Gabriel took the young singer-songwriter under his wing in the mid-’90s, Arthur turned out three albums to critical applause (1997’s Big City Secrets, 2002’s Come to Where I’m From and 2002’s Redemption’s Son) and toured with the likes of David Gray and Ben Harper. It was just that the booming metropolis had begun to feel too much like a recliner.
“It’s good for an artist to be off balance a little bit,” Arthur says. “I write best when I’m traveling because traveling detaches you in a way.”
“At first there was a lot of disillusionment from being detached, which turned out to be a great gift. But at the time it doesn’t feel great at all. It feels like your life is falling apart.”
New Orleans turned out to be an ideal venue for Arthur to reassemble the splinters of his shattered-by-design existence. The result was a lo-fi blueprint of what would evolve into latest moody pop masterpiece, Our Shadows Will Remain.
The album is a buoyantly ponderous affair, like a 12-track poem written by a motivational speaker on the worst day of his life. The songs bear dim titles like “Wasted” and “Failed,” but inclinations toward withdrawal are held upright by a sturdy spine of optimism and bright pop melodies.
Arthur views his music as a study in emotional symbiosis, a manifestation of creativity’s codependence with pain. In the song “Can’t Exist,” for example, he threatens to disintegrate altogether just before reassuring listeners that no, really, he’ll be fine: “Sister, don’t be scared/ A thousand times or more/ I’ve walked away alive/ on my feet again.”
“It’s a mystery where inspiration comes from, but I think it has something to do with a spiritual source and also a place of suffering. There’s some kind of relationship there between a state of crisis and state of grace. It’s a graceful crisis, I guess,” he says.
The album takes its bittersweet title from a nuclear phenomenon: When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impact of the blasts was so intense that people were immediately incinerated and their shadows were burned onto floors and walls. Arthur perceives this as metaphor for humanity’s ability to surmount tragedy, a poignant reminder that life goes on in spite of ideological rifts.
“I don’t think this is an overtly political record, but I think its disillusionment reflects the times to a degree. I think there’s some hope in my work, too,” he says.
Musically, the album is a Picadilly Circus of genres, from subway-style acoustic guitar to brooding synthesizers to guest appearances by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. For shows, Arthur records himself playing live, then loops the recordings and harmonizes along with them to better reproduce the texture of his diversely sprawling style.
Creative consistency is one hobgoblin that Arthur couldn’t care less about.
“People want to protect themselves by saying that they’re this or that. But I see identity as something to transcend, not protect,” Arthur says. “Why not explore a bunch of different things? When you pull from a variety, you make something more original.”
Case in point, Arthur identifies with the label “artist” on several different levels outside of the strictly musical realm. He paints, writes poetry and began dabbling in documentary filmmaking during a recent tour with REM. In 1999, the self-designed art of his Vacancy EP earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package.
“The same principles you apply to visual work you can apply to music,” Arthur explains.
However, he hesitates when asked to describe what his music would look like if it were translated into a visual medium.
It’s a tough question. Arthur’s compositions possess the visceral substance of sculpture, the sensitivity of blown glass, the impulsive brushstrokes of paint on canvas and the choreographed abstraction of a slightly out-of-focus photograph.
“I think it’d be film,” he finally responds, “because it’s moving.”