[First Published in Concrete, September 29, 2011]
The lights don’t go down and the sound man hasn’t turned the music off. The new Bon Iver album is playing out from the sound desk when a heavily bearded, gaunt, and slow-moving Texan man walks onto the stage at the Norwich Arts Centre and it’s four minutes before the track fades out, in which time he fiddles with some cables. Silence. Josh T. Pearson looks at the crowd and says nothing.
Listening to Last of The Country Gentlemen, 38-year-old Pearson’s first and as yet only solo offering, it’s all of a suidden very difficult to imagine how else this could have started. Speaking to Venue days before his Norwich show, Pearson had mentioned that, whilst the album did take two days to record, there was a ten day gap in between in which he “just went to bed and drank some juice, ate some bread.” Recording had become too much and these songs, frail, skinny, and stunningly beautiful, were taking their toll. Pearson hasn’t even listened back to the album; it’s “just a crushing personal blow.” He says he’s “not far enough removed from these songs yet.” “Very cold” was all that Pearson could offer on the conditions in Berlin, chosen as the recording location. Last Of The Country Gentlemen is the sound of a man barricading himself from the blizzard outside and asking for warmth.
Pearson talks for a few minutes before he starts; small talk, mainly. “So I’m gonna play some real fuckin’ depressing songs for y’all and then maybe try to break it up with some dirty jokes,” he says timidly. He’s not comfortable, as he made clear to Venue when he said that “there are days when you just thing ‘there’s no friggin’ way I wanna get up and play these songs. I just cannot do it.’ But then it gets closer to stage time and you see a crowd and you think ‘okay maybe I can do this, I can go up there and confess my sins in front of this crowd of people.” Every show is a struggle for Pearson and, rather that bring about some sort of soul-cleansing catharsis, thses songs are barbs that dig into him and remind him of his breakdown.
He bleeds into ‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’, all 12 minutes of it, and a heavy atmosphere engulfs the old church. the small talk was an admirable delaying tactic but there’s not real preparation for this. Pearson turns in on himself and all of a sudden he’s on his own. When he does manage to open his eyes, he seems shocked that anyone is there and shuts them again almost immediately. And yet, the more that Pearson sinks into himself, the closer the sold-out Arts Centre is to him.
Pearson may think that he’s confessing his sins in front of this crowd, but the truth is he’s torturing himself for the greater good. Sure, it’s a little biblical, but maybe that’s appropriate. Josh T. Pearson suffers in plain view for almost an hour and a half tonight: from the extended version of ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’ through the delicate tones of ‘Country Dumb’. This is a 10 date tour, Pearson moves on to Cambridge tomorrow evening and has to do this all over again, whilst tonight’s crowd have witnessed a level of honesty and sincerity that they may never witness again.
It’s that intensity that makes Pearson so essential. Last of the Country Gentlemen is so painfully honest that the artist himself can’t listen back to it. On stage, Pearson is Christ.