Joshua James is a young man with an old man’s voice. The words he sings are both cryptic and intense, which is a disconcerting combination. Written out they look merely weird; this, for instance—
I heard a lady singing,
“We’re all bound together!”
I joined her side by saying,
“To dance beneath the heavens!”
—is not the only point in the song where you just go what the what? Or, here’s the chorus’s recurring assertion: “But my dog ain’t nothin’, he ain’t nothin’ like my lover/Ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” This dude is operating from foreign coordinates, and I don’t mean merely the fact that he splits his time between Nebraska and Utah.
But songs aren’t poetry; lyrics are not intended to stand alone on a page or a screen. Some kind of alchemy is at work in the way these words are sung by this voice to these melodies and this steady, drum-driven arrangement. There are no flamboyant hooks or striking sounds, but there’s an edginess in here somewhere, and a catchiness too, although both are difficult to pinpoint. The key, to me, is the internal rhyme he uses in the second line of the verse. He grabs you with it in the opening moments—“I am a liar, a dirty wire”—but mutes the effect in the second verse with an inexact rhyme (“baby” and “lady”). What he’s done, consciously or not, is set us up for the third verse—the ear was waiting for the return of a true rhyme (“I’ll be she’s pretty, queen of the city”) and even though that’s the only time we hear the title’s phrase, the song now seems effortlessly to have delivered us to this phrase, at just the right moment. Just don’t expect to understand what he’s talking about. One other thing he has mysteriously set up is the twist in the third iteration of the chorus, when the dog is abruptly replaced: “But my lord, you ain’t nothin’, you ain’t nothin’ like my lover/You ain’t nothin’ like my lover at all.” I’m not sure I will ever decipher all this but it feels righteous and deep. Impressive stuff.
“Queen of the City” is a track from James’ third full-length album, From the Top of Willamette Mountain, which was released last month on Intelligent Noise Records. The produced by Richard Swift, who has worked with the Mynabirds and Laetitia Sadier and is also now a member of the Shins.