Imagine a Jon Brion produced disc of Paul Simon singing the Elliott Smith songbook and you've got a pretty good handle on what Minneapolis songwriter Jeremy Messersmith has in store with his latest release, The Reluctant Graveyard. Equal parts macabre darkness and sunny sixties pop, The Reluctant Graveyard builds upon the foundation of solid lyrics that Messersmith mapped out with his first two discs and runs with it, adding more production elements than Messersmith's been privy to in the past and the results are one of my personal favorite discs of the year so far.
Messersmith has been in the back of my mind since his debut release, Alcatraz Kid, but I never actually got around to checking him out until I caught him live earlier this summer with Kaiser Cartel. Thanks in part to his incredible, innovative presence live and his solid new disc, Messersmith has filtered into my daily listening, orchestrating everything from cleaning the kitchen to driving to shows. To say I'm smitten with the man's music is an accurate statement. Set to a background of deceptively upbeat music, Messersmith tackles the idea of death head-on in his lyrics all the while wearing his influences on his sleeve with pride - Everyone from the Zombies (an influence especially prevalent on "Violet!") to Elliott Smith (The melodic swirl and layered vocals of "Deathbed Salesmen" is the closest we'll probably get to another "Happiness") are present here, yielding results of a brilliant hodgepodge of familiar originality.
Even tracks like "Deathbed Salesman" sound like sunshine until you turn a more attentive ear towards what Messersmith is singing - "You won't feel a thing.... And once you're gone, you'll never want to live again."
The cd starts with some of the most positive and "rock" tracks you'll find here, "Lazy Bones" and "Dillinger Eyes", which hit like a one-two punch of 1960's pop perfection. The disc as a whole, however, really hits it's stride with "Organ Doner" which is perhaps the single track that best represents Messersmith's sound on The Reluctant Graveyard : Dark, accessible, with lyrics that touch on unrequited love, self-doubt, and the monotony of every day life before the narrator succumbs to the relief of death. Morbid? Of course! But it also makes for unexpectedly swell summer driving music with all the windows rolled down.
Messersmith's penchant for solid folk writing (on which he has built a noteworthy career) thankfully hasn't been abandoned. While the solid production values doubtlessly help Messersmith's cause here, it's a breath of fresh air when pretenses are dropped and he returns to his "just a guy with a guitar" roots on the stand out track "A Girl, A Boy, And A Graveyard". If ever you wanted a look into my psyche, readers, this song will offer you one. For me "A Girl, A Boy, And A Graveyard" is this year's version of Dawes' "Bedside Manner", which is to say that if no other music were released for the rest of the year, I'd be content because I would have the one song that I could relate to infinitely.
It's interesting that a disc that deals with mortality in every song is the most optimistic disc of Messersmith's career. Lyrically, this is the same guy that sang "Even the good times could be so much better.... Even the great times wouldn't let me down", just slightly more conceptual. Musically, it's easy to trace a growth pattern through Messersmith's career, from acoustic folky singing about failed relationships to a modern day Colin Blunstone with a predilection for the macabre.
Messersmith plays Schubas on the 12th of August. Until then, pay what you want for all three of his records and get familiar with his discography so you can sing along when he hits Chicago.