James Johnston - The Starless Room

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2016-11-18

We've seen some powerful albums in 2016. Among them, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker  and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree.  While any Album of the Year declarations are entirely subjective, James Johnston’s The Starless Room is near the top of my list. It’s quite simply one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard all year.

Some might know James Johnston from the gloriously demented, Gallon Drunk. Full disclosure, they were one of my favorite bands in the 90’s. They blasted out this sound that could only be described as Underworld Noir. Delirious and hard hitting as a Derek Raymond novel. Their music could have easily served on a David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. They etched out a singular sound with brutal blasts of organ and twisted surf guitar. Johnston cynically growling out crooked, debauched narratives.

Then before you know it, Gallon Drunk fell silent. Johnston soon popped up in Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. Surely, Mr. Cave must have been a big Gallon Drunk fan? Since leaving his tenure in the Bad Seeds, Johnston’s contributed to a variety of projects with the likes of PJ Harvey and others. He's also continued recording with Gallon Drunk. But to the best of my knowledge, he's never released a solo album.

Suffice to say, I was not expecting this. Gallon Drunk fan that I am, The Starless Room majestically pulls the rug out from under that band’s Gotham mayhem. I’m hard pressed to categorize it other than soulful, melodic and mysterious. “I’ll give you anything”, Johnston sings from the onset in a warm baritone. And that’s just what he does on this album. 

 ‘St. Martha’s’ is an epistle to a long lost day with a long lost love. Johnston shyly revealing the details of what must be an old, dog eared kodachrome photograph. Though specific events remain unsaid, one gets the full picture emotionally from his delivery.

“We’re ghosts,” Johnston confides in the soaring title track. It’s a song fraught with both loss and acceptance. Whether through death or some other means, his paramour has left like “a light receding", leaving our protagonist sitting in "the starless room" listening to the "may rain falling." It’s a stellar, poignant track. Rest assured, the remainder of the album keeps up the ante.  

One can certainly sense a sea change happening on in this album. The spare, ‘Cold Morning Light’ lets the piano, strings and backing vocals do most of the talking. Its’ only lyric, “Don’t mourn the fire as it dies with the dawn in sight/And no more the trial of night/ Here, come the cold morning light”. While tis' a melancholy reckoning, there is also something defiantly uplifting as well. All of which, is an apt description of this album as a whole.

Close on its heels we have, the gospel infused ‘Dark Water’. A song that could easily serve as Johnston’s answer to ‘Waterloo Sunset’. It’s a stunning track, that mournfully discloses, “at the center of it all the cold, dark water rolls.” The orchestrations swell, keeping you above said dark waters. Like the rest of the album it’s impeccably recorded, ending with a pleading choir that gently lifts you to rafters and beyond. Without a doubt, it’s one of The Starless Room’s most arresting moments.

 ‘Frozen Time’ is the sound of wanting a beautiful moment to last forever. With the full knowledge that such a thing can never be. As with ‘Dark Water’, the orchestrations add depth and dynamics. Yet another in a chain of songs that resonate deeply.

The Gothic, ‘Heart and Soul’ could serve as The Starless Room’s thesis. Here Johnston conjures an unworldly twilit atmosphere as he delivers what is all too rare these days: an unabashed love song. Vulnerable and full of doubt. Bravely devoid of cynicism. Another lush and gorgeous piece to this emotional jigsaw puzzle of an album.

Elsewhere,‘The Light of Love’ begins somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Going to show Johnston's wry sense of humor hasn't quite been buried six feet under. “This is heaven in hell” he croons as proceedings rise to what must be the album’s most enduring and infectious chorus.

By contrast, ‘Let It Fall’ is the album’s darkest track. A bare winter branch of a song, hovering in a cold relentless wind. “Hard as day, empires fall,” Johnston warns. His feelings on the matter couldn’t be more plain, “Let it fall, let it fall.”

The album ends with a hushed lullaby, that is both plea and promise “And when the wolf calls, stay by me, stay by me.” It’s a haunting conclusion to a spellbinding album. To be honest, I haven’t heard anything this unguarded and sincere in quite some time. Here’s an album that favors candor over cynicism and irony. There is an intimacy and gentleness that is both moving and inviting. An album completely devoid of pretension or agenda. A generous peek beneath the black robes of Gloom and Doom, to the bleeding heart within. Potent stuff. One of the best things I've heard all year.  

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