I have a deep respect for people who blaze their own paths. It’s one thing to excel at a skill that falls in a long line of artists, to carry that torch valiantly off into the future. It’s admirable, and you can often find a lot of people who liked the Beatles who will like your Beatles-inspired psych.
On the other hand, there’s outsider music, music by trailblazers for whomever comes across it and connects with it. Outsider music can range from inoffensively strange (like Half-handed Cloud) to totally inscrutable (Jandek); sometimes it’s the lyrics that are arcane, sometimes it’s the arrangement that’s inexplicable. Sometimes it’s both.
JPH’s hell verses taps an outsider vein for the lyrical content of the three-song EP: it’s exclusively the words of Jesus Christ (ok, what’s so weird?) about hell (ok, there we are). Picking the words that Jesus said about hell is ambitious (even in a three-song EP). There’s the question of why, for starters. Why would you want to put those words to song? Are you saying something? Making a point? Is the point that Jesus said only three things about hell, here they are, let’s stop making a big deal out of hell when he said so many other words about so many other things? Or maybe it’s literal: here is the word on what hell is like. Maybe it’s a socio-political commentary: now feels like the right time to remind people what hell is like, either to draw comparisons or contrasts to our contemporary moment. Helpfully, JPH gave me a statement on the EP:
“As for a comment on the album, Jesus’ words, especially in King James English, give hell a tarot-like mystery, one that feels close to my experience with the barren parts of life.”
So there’s at least an element of personal allegory/metaphor here, but I feel more. There’s the element of mystery, tarot-like mystery; mysterious is one thing when describing Jesus, but dropping in the tarot right next to Jesus is bold and fascinating. And the King James, of all translations–the King James has such cultural weight, much more than a contemporary translation like the ESV might. Even in the statement about why such an unusual concept exists, the questions abound.
But writing an EP about hell is not just complicated in the choice of lyrics. How should one put a backdrop to the words of Jesus about hell? Josh Ritter major-key folk tunes maybe aren’t right. The doom metallers and death metallers have the fire-and-brimstone market well-cornered. But then there’s JPH’s statement itself: mystery. And lo, mystery it is. These three tracks are ostensibly acoustic folk songs, but there is no stomping or clapping here. These are intimate, delicate, stark, minor-key songs that draw as much from slowcore like Jason Molina as they do Simon and Garfunkel (and there is some S&G in the vocal performances, which is basically the lot of anyone doing two male vocals in the same song, thanks for playing, everyone).
“Matthew 13:49-50” (more famously known as one of the places where we get the English idiom “weeping and gnashing of teeth”) is just as I described above: a single acoustic guitar and two male vocal lines harmonizing. The two vocal lines are almost both lead lines, as both contribute meaningfully to the sound of the song. Neither are “supporting” each other, per se. The music is not discomforting, but neither is it comforting: it is a piece of art that makes a statement. It is oddly beautiful.
“Luke 16:19-31” is much more experimental: it’s a big stack of a cappella lines repeated ostinato-style for almost two and a half minutes. JPH is a fan of mid-century modern composing styles, and this composition shows that off. To do this entirely with vocals is a unique and interesting turn. The “melody” appears around 1:30, and it’s a wailing, anguished thing that sets raw emotion against the hypnotic obstinate pastiche that the vocal lines have created. This sounds more like Napoleon’s hell in C.S. Lewis’ the Great Divorce instead of the pit that is described in the lyrics; Napoleon endlessly considering how he could have won at Waterloo, pacing, pacing, pacing.
“Mark 9:48-49” is a return to interleaved vocal lines over a moderately minor key acoustic performance. The vocal performances here have an almost medieval quality to the tone and melody; the work here is more overtly ominous than the previous two tracks. This is the “salted with fire” idiom that you may be familiar with; so there’s good reason to be a bit more overtly scary.
Most people read reviews to determine if they should listen to something or not. I think that if the overall concept of hell verses left any doubt, then a short summary like “three songs about hell in an acoustic-folk style with engaging vocal performances” probably would have covered that particular concern. But I’m more interested in this work as a piece of art; not as something to listen to on the commute, but something to commune with. How do you sit with this? What does it say to you? I think it could say something to a lot more people than will sit and listen to it. But for those of you who do seek out adventurous musical experiences and don’t fret about ambiguity, complexity, and unusual approaches, there is a lot here to understand and think about.
For me it raises all sorts of questions about how artists can say what they want to say without saying it outright. Whether this is a commentary on a dark period in JPH’s life, a commentary on our American political situation, or the climate-changing world, or somehow all of that, none of that is explicitly noted. But it comes up in my mind as I listen. The concept, music, and lyrics are highly evocative. I’m particularly interested in music that says things I haven’t heard before and puts sounds in front of me that I’m not used to. Both of these boxes are checked with hell verses, and that makes this a very interesting release. Highly recommended.
JPH’s hell verses drops May 27 at Bandcamp. You can download the release there or pick up one of a cassette run that includes a physical-only bonus track! If you’re looking for even more JPH, he’ll be touring in the fall and releasing music videos here and there until then.