Songs of flesh and faith

Revelations from Josh T. Pearson, last of the genuine country gentlemen

Josh T. Pearson (and his 10-year-old beard) journey home to Texas for a fistful of South by Southwest gigs

MUSIC Some cowboy angels have been crying into their beer for salvation; meantime, some of us singing cowgirls who are also in struggle push onward to save ourselves. Texan-in-exile Josh T. Pearson's new Last of the Country Gentlemen (Mute) is very much the answer record for that divide, its harrowing, beautiful 60 minutes transmuting into a sonic angel and devil's advocate for both sides.

On hearing the disc's seven songs — or, as when seeing Pearson live a few weeks past at Brooklyn's Bell House, where he opened with the one-two punch of "Sweetheart I Ain't Your Christ" and "Thou Art Loosed" — you might be inclined to label the work mere post-breakup bittersweets, or worse, sexist. Yet you would be woefully wrong, akin to those scene-making hipsters at the Bell House who refused to pocket their cell phones and thus did not respect the artist or the hush required to truly hear the songs. You would not be awake to the fact that Brother Pearson's preaching the (female) listener toward empowerment. He fled Sam the Sham, crossing the pond for refuge, solace, and space, but did not find old world streets paved with gold, and ultimately he was stalked by heartache, firewater, and despair. No one else can love you into wholeness. Reckon I don't know if Jesus saves; down here, it appears nobody can save your soul but you — savior self.

In my recent long seasons of darkness, this is the hardest life lesson I was forced to learn. And so the acute sadness of Josh T. Pearson the artist — once weighted with the spoils and pressures of one anointed as sonic savior, courtesy of his prior trio Lift to Experience and its lone apocalyptic recording The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) — and his seven devastating accounts of love gone wrong, about the chains of dissipation and loss of mind and self, resonate with me in ways that cannot be reduced to printed matter nor speech. After a decade of inner turbulence and music's collective loss of grace, here, at last, is a recording made by a grown-ass man.

With their length and delicate, unvarnished instrumentation — chiefly, Pearson's voice and guitar, recorded over two days in Berlin with strings added a few months later — the songs of Last of the Country Gentlemen will doubtless cause some to resist, too cowardly to engage with pain. They need to recognize that Pearson is strong enough to balance (gallows) wit with generous depth and unflinching honesty. See "Honeymoon is Great, I Wish You Were Her," or even the tortured meshes of "Sorry With A Song," with its "Last time you left I got my drunk ass whupped in a fight/ My whole life's been one clichéd country unfinished line after line after line after line." On stage at the Bell House, he joked about expecting to see more beards in the Brooklyn crowd, and noted that the 10-year length of his own mirrored his "absence." Awake, awake...know his embodiment of the divine.

The portrait Pearson is gentlemanly enough to present: a young Ugly American seeking detachment abroad, unraveling, and painstakingly slaying dragons to evolve and become a better human. Yes, there are ghost notes between his being the son of a Southern preacher man and myself being the granddaughter, niece, cousin of same; a shared lore of traditions and the Word communicates beneath the surface of this record (and I nigh passed out when he seamlessly recuperated the Melodians-minted "Rivers of Babylon" into his oeuvre live last week).

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