First Listen

First Listen: Joseph Arthur, 'The Graduation Ceremony'

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Joseph Arthur's new album, The Graduation Ceremony, comes out May 24. i i

hide captionJoseph Arthur's new album, The Graduation Ceremony, comes out May 24.

Courtesy of the artist
Joseph Arthur's new album, The Graduation Ceremony, comes out May 24.

Joseph Arthur's new album, The Graduation Ceremony, comes out May 24.

Courtesy of the artist

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Joseph Arthur's 2006 album Nuclear Daydream was the last full-length release under his name alone, but we've been treated to the singer-songwriter's work in other incarnations since then. He's made two albums with his band The Lonely Astronauts, as well as a series of four solo EPs released across four months in 2008. Just last year, he put out an album with the trio Fistful of Mercy, featuring Arthur, Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison.

That varied span of work mirrors the career Arthur has built as a "triple threat" artist since the mid-'90s, bridging music, poetry and painting with prolific creativity and unyielding inventiveness. He's even opened a gallery, the Museum of Modern Arthur (now online only). None of those endeavors suggest that "restraint" is part of his vocabulary.

But if there ever was a Joseph Arthur project to dispute that claim, it's his new album, The Graduation Ceremony, out May 24. From the first finger-picked notes of "Out on a Limb," it's clear that Arthur's goal is to keep things simple in both process and sound. Even with full orchestration (guitars, bass, strings, keys, Jim Keltner on drums and Liz Phair on backing vocals), there's an intentional sparseness at work. As with much of Joseph's musical and visual work, layers — however delicate — create depth, not excess.

Restraint in subject matter is another story, as Arthur adds no filter to reflections on a relationship's ebb, flow and end. With his vocal range in fine form, moving from Greg Brown-esque growl to winding falsetto, listening is an almost tactile experience. (Try to not react to the opening line of "Watch Our Shadows Run," in which Arthur sings in full falsetto, "You betrayed me.")

Still, dark ruminations aren't the only color in the album's musical palette. "Midwest" invites listeners to clap along, dream and turn up the distortion, and the sun appears repeatedly throughout The Graduation Ceremony, including in the soaring chorus of "Over the Sun." (That said, the tune also features the line, "When I cheat on you, you're still all I see.")

Whether "Over the Sun" is a sequel to his 2000 hit "In the Sun," only Arthur knows for sure. But his catalog rarely treads the same ground twice, and The Graduation Ceremony proves it by exploring another artful dimension entirely.

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