Album Review: Jonathan Livingston, UNTITLED
by Tommy Jacobi
There is a definite mystique to Jonathan Livingston’s second record. It’s nameless, it’s self-released. Its cover is a cartoon of the Red Sea parting and has nothing written on it. Sonically, it is full of voice cracks, guitar buzzes, neck creaks, and closing doors—the sounds of one microphone set up in a bedroom—and the songs themselves consist of only a voice and a guitar. This frame probably sounds familiar: one man alone in a room with some acoustic instrument, singing raw into a cheap microphone, seemingly unembarrassed by imperfection, yet somehow surrounded with personal mystery. In early blues, it was Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James. Then, after Bob Dylan, there was Nick Drake, John Fahey, Daniel Johnston, and Houston’s own Jandek. In recent years, there’s been Will Oldham, Jeff Mangum, Phil Elverum, and Elliot Smith. To different extents, they have been called reclusive, insane, disturbed, unstable, solipsistic, grandiose, dangerous, mythic, and brilliant. Their strangeness, isolation, and singularity are powerful commodities. Documentaries and biographies have abounded. For so many listeners, the myth is more enjoyable than the music itself.
Luckily, Jonathan Livingston makes music, not myths, and he makes it out of the angry, egocentric dirt that this tradition of the “reclusive man” has stamped into the ground. He treats loneliness, alienation, hopes, dreams, and death with a dark joy, a blunted grace, a painstakingly simple beauty that sways in hard passions between lullaby and chant. What’s more, he deals with love, belief, prophecy, confusion, pain, doubt, Adventist doctrine, and Christian faith with a clarity and depth that I’ve learned to never expect from “Christian music”.