A Short History of Decay by John MurryRelease date: July 14, 2017
Label: TV Records
New music from good artists is always welcome, but in the case of the new album A Short History of Decay by John Murry it’s possibly more of a relief. Murry’s only previous solo album 2012’s The Graceless Age was one of the most critical acclaimed albums of that year, but it did little to help Murry to escape his demons and reverse his bad luck. Murry has been dealt the full house of tortured artist burdens; troubled upbringing, addiction, tragic death, marriage problems. The Graceless Age was beginning to look like his one brilliant missive from out of hell, one of the artists and albums that periodically gets dusted down by the monthly music magazines for a ‘what if’ or ‘where are they now’ feature, a sad lament of wasted talent and forgotten genius.
The Graceless Age saw Murry taken under the wing of Tim Mooney of American Music Club who produced the album, a sweeping, feverish American gothic horror which detailed Murry’s struggles with heroin addiction. Its success was however, greeted with typical suspicion by Murry who thought critics were celebrating and revelling in his tales of pain and excess. And then Mooney died, suddenly, and his world fell apart again.
But now he’s back, a resident of Ireland, with a new mentor, Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies and with a new album A Short History of Decay. Michael Timmins helped him put a new band together – his brother Peter Timmins, also of Cowboy Junkies, on drums, Josh Finlayson on bass and Cat O’Riordan (who’ll you know from The Pogues and Elvis Costello) on vocals. The album was recorded in Toronto and sonically is a different beast from its predecessor in that it was recorded fast and instinctively, the sound more natural and spare.
What hasn’t changed is Murry’s bleak, graphic but poetic lyrical style. The song titles tell a story in themselves – ‘Under a Darker Moon’, ‘One Day (You’ll Die)’. Murry is related by adoption to William Faulkner, but his own characters and tales inhabit a world more closely akin to the works of Hubert Selby or Charles Bukowski. His abandoned ‘Miss Magdelene’ is asked whether Jesus just “cried for his old man as he bled out”. She’s “no one’s debutante” – smoking cigarettes down to the filter, dancing, taking her shirt off and puking blood.
Despite the simple set-up and small band, A Short History of Decay is quite diverse musically, with Murry switching between grungy rockers like ‘Under a Darker Moon’ and ‘Defacing Sunday Bulletins’ (which perhaps unsurprisingly call to mind fellow Prince of Darkness, Mark Lanegan), off kilter, poppier moments like ‘One Day (You’ll Die) and spartan, classic Americana like ‘Wrong Man’ and ‘Come Five & Twenty’.
The three best tracks here are all singular in their delights and are all equally surprising in small ways. On the haunting ‘Wrong Man’ Murry lends his scuffed, laconic baritone to a song of such weary, honest grace that it could sit comfortably on Springsteen’s Nebraska…yes it really is that good.
Afghan Whigs resurgence upon the musical landscape is given another boost by a cover here of ‘What Jail Is Like’ the standout track from their peerless Gentleman album. Murry sucks the poison out of Dulli’s lyrics, replacing the vicious confrontation with more weary resignation with Cat O’Riordan’s subtle but powerful backing vocals giving the song a duality missing from the original. The Whigs take is a confessional with an almost gleeful unapologetic sneer, whilst this version does feel genuinely remorseful and takes the song in an entirely new direction and is no worse for it, it may even be better.
Whoever decided to take ‘One Day (You’ll Die) in a jaunty reggae direction needs a pat on the back as it provides some much needed levity to proceedings. Maybe Murry isn’t a total misery guts after all, as who could possibly not smirk as Murry croons cheerily the title and declares “we are a pair of narcoholics, so fucking civilised” as the backing vocals “do do do-doo” over a lilting Caribbean vibe? It’s odd, unexpected and thoroughly entertaining.
Maybe the world can prove Murry wrong for once, maybe there is a future for him and maybe there’s more great music to come too. Let’s hope so.