A disarming change-of-pace that yields surprises and pleasures.
Chicago-based brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella have generated a prodigious amount of music as Cap’n Jazz, American Football (Mike’s band) and Joan of Arc (Tim’s band) , along with several additional monikers along the way. Of these projects, the last has been especially prolific. Joan of Arc just issued its 23rd release, 1984 on which its usual lead singer, Tim Kinsella, hands vocal duties to fellow Arc, Melina Ausikaitis. The album is a disarming change-of-pace that yields surprises and pleasures, taking its fair share of risks along the way.
Opener “Tiny Baby” is a strange, post-country lullaby with faux-naive singing and lyrics (“I pretend/ I’m a tiny baby/ That can’t keep/ Its eyes open”) with an ambient accompaniment of muted guitar feedback and droning piano notes. A similar delivery, somewhat reminiscent of Joanna Newsom, reappears on “Maine Guy” with a similar arrangement that suggests an audiobook. Unlike on the opener, the vocals and music do not cohere as effectively here, with its instrumental sections more successful than its lyrics, which somehow are more compelling on the page than in song. That voice recurs on one of the album’s final songs, “Vermont Girl,” the most musically powerful and lyrically haunting of the three; here, the elements work in concert to create an unsettling, evocative narrative that perfectly captures the feeling of being young and not fully understanding how the world works around you.
Elsewhere, the group explores different vocal and musical personas. “Vertigo” is nearly a cappella, apart from manipulated vocal loops that sound like a swarm of gulls and a drone that leads into “Punk Kid,” one of the album’s highlights. Here, the first-person-style lyrics that predominate feel more natural and less theatrical; when it reaches its final crescendo–“All my life I’ve been eating shit/ Look at me, I’m a real punk kid”–it feels like real catharsis.
Though an intriguing experiment, the spoken-word nature of “People Pleaser” features exaggerated vocals and call-and-response strings that take the listener out of the flow of the album and does not fit with the rest of 1984; it sounds a bit like a musical theater version of Black Flag, which is may be the intent. Likewise, “Truck” is built from strong components that
don’t always come together, though it has its share of magic, such as the swirling piano that accompanies the second verse and the halting vocal delivery that drives into the chorus late in the song: “There’s no need to close the door/ On your personal hole, I’ll tell you why/ ‘Cause nobody will notice.”
More consistently effective are the more traditional, but also more genuinely stirring songs like “Psy-fi/Fantasy” and “Forever Jung,” both featuring wordless singing that is in some ways more eloquent than the album’s lyrics. Beautiful and dynamic, these tracks offer the kind of finely wrought melodies and transitions that would not sound out of place on a movie soundtrack, giving a character depth when the script or actor falls short.
It’s hard to do something different, especially for a band that has been together this long and has put out so much music. The Kinsellas and Joan of Arc deserve the listener’s gratitude for the strange, winding trip that 1984 provides, and the unexpected joys it delivers along the way.