John Murry Sings of Ghosts and Ashes on 'The Graceless Age'

If rock ’n’ roll tends to exist in the present tense, John Murry’s songs live in the aftermath. The Mississippi-born California transplant sifts through shards and fragments on “The Graceless Age” (Evangeline Recording Co.), a powerful solo debut anchored by the weight of memory.

Murry writes songs like a novelist, building dramatic conflict toward wrenching, inevitable conclusions that can be brutal in their impact, and hypnotic in their effect. Like all good storytellers, he’s searching for deeper truths, and the memories weighing him down are vivid and direct: The songs on “The Graceless Age” came from a grim period in Murry’s life, when he was strung out and estranged from his wife and young daughter. (He’s since cleaned up, and they’ve since reconciled.)

He sings of ghosts and ashes with palpable regret in a drawn-out drawl that scatters flecks of Mississippi dirt through songs he wrote in the Bay Area. Murry is not concerned with the strictures of time, letting his stories unfold at the pace they need, whether it’s five, eight or even 10 minutes. The last, “Little Colored Balloons,” slides by as if no clock is ticking at all as Murry recounts a heroin overdose that nearly killed him. “This ain’t what I am, this is what I do,” he insists, and his anguish can’t fully obscure the longing in his voice while the music behind him swells from simple piano to subtle, groaning strings and gospel-like female backing vocals. By the end, he’s roaring, “I still miss you so much,” and it’s not clear whether he’s singing to his wife, his addiction or both.

As harrowing as the song is, “The Graceless Age” isn’t an album about drugs, or even, particularly, remorse. In literary fashion, it’s an album about choices and their consequences. While Murry pores over the decisions that left him with only fading snapshots on “Photograph,” or the cinders of a life he torched himself on “Things We Lost in the Fire,” he accepts them as his own, without excuses.

Murry recorded “The Graceless Age” with Tim Mooney of American Music Club and Sun Kil Moon, and the album was the last Mooney worked on before his death last year, apparently of a blood clot. The pair created open, enveloping arrangements, with steel guitar drifting like slow exhalations over fingerpicked acoustic guitar on “Things We Lost in the Fire,” tangles of electric guitar and piano knotting on opener “The Ballad of the Pajama Kid” and a woozy bassline that circles slowly through the clutter of buzzing guitars, keyboards and percussion on “California,” another album standout.

“This city’s a dream, but I’m wide awake,” Murry sings. He sounds determined to keep his eyes open wide, whatever may come.

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