Arthur's Theme

Multitalented artist Joseph Arthur finds reward in more than just song

"I agree with that, definitely," says Arthur. "I think because I'm coming at it sort of through the back door, putting the art on the album covers and not, like, doing gallery shows, it's easier for people to accept. That resistance [to artists working in multiple media] isn't just in the States; I find it, too, in England. But really, I haven't had too many problems with it. People seem to accept it." People very likely accept it because they have no choice; Arthur's talents are simply too great to dismiss. But along with his technical skill comes a disarming openness that grows more evident with repeated listenings.

In an interview with National Public Radio in 1997, the year of his first release (Big City Secrets), he referred to his music as the sound of "somebody struggling to heal over experimental folk-rock with an identity crisis." At first blush, that disarming description might apply to any dozen slowcore/emo performers; but in the few years since Big City Secrets, Arthur's lyrics have gotten as unpredictable and rewarding as anything in Paul Westerberg's glory era. From the new album's "History": "You're your mama's shit eatin' grin and your daddy's double chin/You're the first pair of shoes you ever went to school in/And you're the kid pretending she's in prison/Behind the bars of a jungle gym." Or, from "Ashes Everywhere": "I can't deal with what you have done/Reincarnate I wonder who I might become . . ./I don't have nothing, now I want me some/First some of you, then some of everyone."

Like J. Mascis, another semiconfessional songwriter whose voice his slightly resembles, Arthur has been criticized for simply undergoing therapy aloud. But he isn't merely howling, or opening a vein and letting it drip onto DAT; what lifts Arthur's work above simple catharsis is both the skill with which he executes it and the articulate, dynamic project that his art has become.

The pride of Akron -- Joseph Arthur: "Decisions are a limitation. I'm up for freedom. I like people who take chances."
Anton Corbijn
The pride of Akron -- Joseph Arthur: "Decisions are a limitation. I'm up for freedom. I like people who take chances."

Take his Web site, for example ( "When I first started looking around, I was sort of surprised at how uninvolved people are with the medium. The woman who started the Web site is very content-oriented. And it seemed strange that so many [band-related] Web sites were just another advertising arm. I think of what's going on with our Web site as part of the whole artistic project."

Arthur's pride in the content of the Web site is tough to dispute. To take only the most obvious example, it actually forces the visitor to hunt for links to buy his music (hint: It takes at least two clicks and a lot of scrolling). Assuming that in a hype-saturated business anyone who wants to find Come to Where I'm From via or Tower Online can do so pretty easily, Arthur's Web site forgoes the hyperventilating what-the-critics-are-saying copy found on 99 percent of band sites in favor of (get this) actual substance; visitors can look at Arthur's artwork, track touring information, read full biographies of his collaborators and access sound and video files without having to wait for a thousand gigabytes' worth of Flash or Quicktime files to load. He regularly posts entries from his tour journals, including poems and straight prose ("Instant publication," he says, tongue firmly in cheek, "whether it's good or not"). The primary colors are black and olive, the primary page content is straight text, and the site is absolutely filled to bursting with material.

And lest you think his site is entirely self-contained, be advised that you, yourself personally, can post reviews of his albums and anecdotes from his concerts. Judging from the quality of the posts currently available, however, you'd better have at least a few synapses firing. There are scant posts along the lines of "New Joe album Roxxx!" or "the Toronto show was AWESOME!!!" The overall quality of the public entries on Arthur's Web site, particularly the show anecdotes, is exceptionally high -- not just for inclusion on a Web site but as examples of the language; and not all the reviews are without reservation ("Sometimes he can be a mealy-mouth," says one otherwise positive post, apropos of Arthur's vocals). This kind of interactivity, in a business filled to the teeth with fluff PR campaigns masquerading as official Internet sites, borders on the revolutionary.

It also gives a good impression of what Joseph Arthur's fan base is like. As one listener, also named Joe, offers of Come to Where I'm From, "I still feel like I have a cool secret that no one knows about." The secret is out, undeniably; but there's no getting around the fact that the relationship Arthur is creating with his listeners is symbiotic and distinctive, particularly given the very personal nature of his writing. Is he worried, then, about the possibility of fans connecting too closely, wallowing in his suffering vicariously?

"I've thought a lot about that," he says, "especially in terms of the songs about despair. But I think when I've been really down, I've looked for that, that kind of connection. You know, people go into therapy or meetings, and they say, 'I'm really fucked up, and this is what fucked me up.' And other people say to them, 'Yeah, I'm really fucked up, too,' and it helps, the connection. It makes them feel better."

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