There comes a time in every man’s life when he must question the principles of his culture, his community, and his ancestors. Some may ignore the questions, while others, particularly artists, wrestle with them until something new and lasting is formed from the struggle. Shortly written after the death of his father, Matthew Perryman Jones’ latest record, Land of the Living is a courageous personal Odyssey through life’s most troubled waters of love and loss, and communicates the process by which we grieve, and the fight to find restored hope.The writing process of Land of the Living was an intense wringing of words, emotions, and melody from the rags of Jones’ solitude, but are an account of his truth found in the pain.
His first full length album since 2008, Land of the Living was produced by Cason Cooley (Katie Herzig) and is set to be released on May 29th. The record could not have found a better birthplace than the elusive bohemian studio in Round Top, Texas, where it was recorded. The studio itself was made from a 1700’s Amish farmhouse, is surrounded by vast land and skies, and haunted by a woman the band came to call Sarah. Matthew slept in a teepee outside the studio for the week the band recorded. The short time span forced them to “trust our gut and bring our very best to the table.”
For this record, Matthew decided to entrust the fate of his musings to the ones most likely to connect with it: his fans. In just thirty days Matthew’s “tribe” contributed $26,000 to fund the creation of the album. “Going into making this record supported by fans inspired me in a whole new way. It really awakened the sense of why I went into music in the first place-creating a meaningful connection with people through music.”
Inspiration also came in the form of the writings of Rumi, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo (from which the title Land of the Living was taken), and Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote about the idea of Duende—loosely translated as a heightened sense of emotion, expression, and authenticity in art, and particularly, in music.
In each song there is a sense of wandering in the desert and wrestling with the angels. “Waking up the Dead” conveys the transition from mourning to once again feeling passionate about life. “I want to dance on fire and be born again” is Jones’ earnest mantra. Matthew mirrors the poetry of Leonard Cohen when he sings, “You stand in the water with your arms crossed, groaning hallelujah.” In “Oh Theo,” he grasps Van Gogh’s artistic and spiritual struggle saying, “My heart was still unknown, I was drunk and full of sorrows. I was longing for a home with nowhere to go.”
Perhaps the crux of the record’s struggle can be heard on “Cancion de la Noche”, or “Song of the Night.” Echoes of Daniel Lanois’ mysticism float in the mournful guitars and full, round drums. He sings, “I was alone in the water, deep in the water, where did you go? Oh the light is in disguise, breaking slowly, pull me close and I will push you away.”
A response to “Cancion de la Noche”, is the song “The Angels Were Singing”, which delves into Jones’ grief over the recent loss of his father. As if in a Flannery O’ Connor short story, he says, “I started running to feel more alive, to wake up my senses that slowly had died . . . each tear was a chorus, a sacred reprise, and I finally was grieving that long goodbye.”
Is the pain we encounter in loss worth living and loving to the fullest? In no way a trite answer to the question, the title and last track on Matthew Perryman Jones’ philosophical record gives us a resounding yes. “You cannot love in moderation, you’re dancing with a dead man’s bones. Lay your soul on the threshing floor. . . I am coming home.” And as Rumi said, and Jones has shown us to be true through the journey of Land of the Living, “A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take one whole heart home.”