Last updated on February 12, 2021
Silas J. Dirge opens the door into one of the best albums of 2021 with The Poor Devil. To make such a statement about The Poor Devil’s place among the records to cross my path is easy. Netherlands-based songwriter Jan Kooiker adopted the Dirge moniker, and the name enhances his full immersion into his dark, character-driven narratives.
The album leads the listener in two directions: it wraps itself comfortably in traditional country twang musicality but contributes modern-day lyricism, straddling stylistic contradictions. Dirge offers listeners their own personal Tardis, as if he were Doctor Who. Opening track “Oh Hang Me High” shows glimpses of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams in the vocals. It’s easy to feel the love Kooiker feels for the country roots that frame his musical sensibilities.
“Hear Its Roar” makes me feel like I’ve been transported into a gritty graphic novel: Johnny Cash mixed with a twist of Stephen King’s character Roland Deschain from the novel The Gunslinger. Kooiker’s choice to add his performance on harmonium perfectly sets the mood, both sophisticated and timeless. Dirge wraps us in deep, smooth, hearty vocals as this character descends into hell. The song seems like a freezing night under a starless desert sky, with no direction from the heavens in sight.
The self-produced ten-song sophomore release is almost all Jan Kooiker: vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, percussion, and even whistle on track 5. However, other players contribute. Jan Paul de Bondt’s pedal steel on “Flowers on her Grave” adds to the graveyard lament, depicting innocence that bit the dust. Metaphors dance with the song’s narrator, whiplashing through time. Though he performs on almost all of the album, Harald de Ruiter’s electric guitar particularly shines on “Devil’s Own” and “You Reap What You Sow.” The guitar work adds to an intoxicating mood, enhancing The Poor Devil’s narrative.
“I Saw A Snake” is the sleeper hit of the album, as Thomas van Voorst’s double bass adds a unique edge to the stellar track. “A Land More Kind Than Home” and “Black Dog” feature backing vocals from Nicole Schoute; themes of hope, redemption, retribution, and love need few words in this narrator’s mysterious musical tale.
Closing the album with “Dolly Shot” leaves this locomotive across the American West at its final destination. Yet the term, first used in the 1930’s film industry to reference tracking camera shots, is often used in westerns to capture the “long view” of history. From a Hindu perspective, a simple tracking shot changes perspective, not limited to the horizon’s vertical aspect. Dirge delivers a deeply thought-provoking composition applicable to the chaotic times we are all experiencing.
At the end of the trail, do we know if The Poor Devil from Silas J. Dirge is a character in the album, the narrator, or ourselves? Who can say? It’s just one more thing to ponder from a brilliant songwriter, a creative genius the likes of which doesn’t come around that often.