I was meant to write a piece on Simon Joyner for my friend's magazine SALT, but the feature on cult artists was delayed – in part because I never wrote the piece on Simon Joyner as a cult artist. The process of thinking about that article got me wondering about why it is I like Simon Joyner so much. None of his albums would make my all-time top twenty records, but I've taken the time to collect nearly everything he's recorded (with the exception of a couple of hard-to-find cassettes). Why did I go to this trouble? The reason why I tracked it all down is because he doesn't write bad songs – everything he's written is worth listening to. The only other songwriter I can say that about is Jason Molina. He's also a rare example of an artist who hasn't deteriorated over time – in fact, for the most part, he's improved with each LP. It's impossible to distil what is so impressive about his songwriting so all I could think to do was to pick a few examples of his brilliance.
There are many recurring characters in his songs, most notably Sara and Josephine. Maybe they're real people, maybe they're not – and even if they're real it doesn't mean the stories are true. The songs are fiction and I doubt you could really find that much about their creator if you wanted to. For one, Joyner is much lighter and more approachable in person that many of the characters that inhabit his songs, and I doubt he's suffered all the traumas they have. There's so much I could say about his songwriting but I should let some of his own words do the talking.
Lonely boy why don't you go see a show
It's a sure-fire cure
Pretend the drumbeat is your heart
From Double Joe, Room Temperature LP, 1993 (One Hour records; reissued by Jagjaguwar in 2005)
I can't think of any other song that uses the word “anomie”, though no doubt there are some. I had this song, along with a few others, on a mix-tape before I owned any Simon Joyner records and it was only when I got the LP with lyric sheet was it confirmed that's what he was actually singing. In fact I once asked him about it and he said that people tended to think he was singing “its enemy”, which really wouldn't make sense.
Take her to the movies Friday
Just to see Paul Newman's eyes
From Flowers On Her Birthday, The Motorcycle Accident EP, 1999 (Room Tone)
Flowers on Her Birthday is my favourite Simon Joyner song, perhaps because I'm a sentimental fool. There is nothing I can say about these words other than that they are perfect.
I had to cut out for some fresh air on the landing
But all I got was the smell of rotten fruit rising up from the alley
From Evening Song To Sally, Lost With the Lights On LP, 2004 (Jagjaguwar)
I could have chosen pretty much any line in this song as all six verses are so wonderfully crafted. However, there's something so evocative about these lines – for one they imply a stifling, claustrophobic heat without this being mentioned explicitly at all. I've always been able to picture the scene in my mind and where it takes place. The song continues “Suddenly I realised I wasn't young anymore and I was still hiding out from your daddy / I had spent so long loving you” - there's something Proustian about those lines and the realisation of the passing of time.
I was jamming my hands in my pockets
I swear I was zero at the bone
From One For the Catholic Girls, 7”, 1998 (Wurlitzer Jukebox; compiled on Beautiful Losers, Jagjaguwar, 2006)
With many of his songs there is an explicit reference to the weather or temperature – perhaps it's something to do with living in Nebraska. This captures something that I'd never even noticed before, at least not consciously: pushing your hands in your pockets as far as they'll go and then keeping on pushing even though its utterly futile – you can only break the seam or hurt your fingers. You do it because you're cold, but maybe you do it more because you're anxious or upset.
As long as it's fast I don't care if it's food
From The Simultaneous Occurrence of True Love and Nausea at a South Omaha Burger King Oct 12, 1992, Iffy cassette compilation, 1993, (Unread Records; later reissued on vinyl)
Humour is perhaps most effective when you don't expect it and it's perhaps not the quality most people associate with Simon Joyner. To a point this is a portrait of (sub)urban mundanity but he puts such cutting words in the mouths of its protagonists, including “Who do you think you are boy? H. L. Mencken?”. As ever, the devil is the detail.
Black Dogs and Yellow Birds http://www.weeblackskelf.co.uk/simonjoyner/
Simon Joyner http://www.simonjoyner.net/