Simon Joyner’s Ghosts is an ambitious record, with all the benefits and baggage that such a mantle carries with it. The sprawling double album contains 17 of the artist’s most jagged and harrowing compositions to date and wears its all-analogue production on its breast like a challenge. There’s no shortage of quiet, graceful moments, but most of these tracks are stuffed bears filled with rusted wire: they conform to a familiar songshape, but inside they’re all serrated edges and tetanus.
And let me tell you, it’s a welcome departure from the steel-guitar-and-string-fucked schmaltzfest that was 2009’s Out in the Snow. The album strove for stately elegance but wound up drowning in overproduced, antiseptic arrangements that not even Joyner’s dense, literate lyrics could redeem. Ghosts uses many of the same tools as its predecessor — the violins, the piano, the female backing vocals — but he’s using them all wrong. The violin twitching in the background of “Cotes du Rhone” could be the buzzing of some prehistoric insect, and I’m not even sure the musicians playing on “If It’s Alright with You (It’s Alright with Me) Pt. 2” were sitting in the same room when they were writing their parts. It’s a messy record, messy like a house that’s been abandoned and left to die a slow death exposed to the elements, home now to only the rodents and the dim echoes of its former owners.
But the record’s sonic daring comes at a price. At just 86 minutes, it’s a relatively short for a double album, yet I’m rarely able to take in all of it in one listening, or even two for that matter. And while not every double album is meant to be listened to all at once, this is a clear case of too much of a good thing. At half its current length, Ghosts would make for a spellbinding musical experience, but the sheer volume of material here has a tendency to crowd out the standout tracks.
So, like many works of art cursed by their creator’s ambition, Ghosts is equal parts rapture and frustration. Joyner remains an alarmingly vital lyricist at a stage in his career when many artists would retreat to pedaling shopworn commonplaces (“I lost track of where you went/ With your tongue shaped like a scorpion/ So every kiss or compliment/ Had the faint taste of poison.” Hot damn). The stronger songs on the album match the eloquent brokenness of his words with an equally fractured sonic backdrop: the droning, triumphant “The Tyrant;” the 3 AM last-call croon of “When the Worst Doesn’t Happen;” the seven minutes of squealing guitar and rattling piano keys wrapped around a bludgeoning bassline that is “Vertigo” — highlights like these make it easy to put aside the Leonard Cohen comparisons that have dogged Joyner throughout his career. With a little more careful editing, they could have shined together even more brightly.