Album Review: Jeremy Messersmith - The Reluctant Graveyard

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Jeremy Messersmith - The Reluctant Graveyard
Jeremy Messersmith - The Reluctant Graveyard (Image courtesy of the artist)

Jeremy Messersmith is the nicest guy in the room. He has won over critics with his top-notch musicianship, and his earnest and humble demeanor has charmed audiences across the Midwest. After a mostly acoustic singer-songwriter debut record and a glossier, Dan Wilson-produced follow-up, Messersmith has returned with a whimsical, brand-new bouquet of ear-catching melodies. Yet for all the ear candy on display, Messersmith has taken this perfectly nice batch of pop songs, smirked across the room, and killed all his protagonists. Standard horror-movie trick: you never expect the nice guy to be the killer. Welcome to The Reluctant Graveyard.

Messersmith played coy with the promotion of the album, hinting at the strong possibility that the characters in each of the record's 11 songs may very well be dead. It's an ambiguity that adds a layer of interest while also providing the opportunity for new interpretations with each listen. Viewed in this light, ostensibly cheerful songs suddenly take on dark undercurrents: read the lyrics to "Violet!" without the ridiculously cheery melody, and the plight of the narrator gradually becomes more and more unnerving. Meanwhile, the explicit 'death' songs make death seem not so frightening after all. The eponymous narrator of "Deathbed Salesman" reassures the living as he sings, "Once you're gone, you'll never want to live again." These songs capture brief, vivid moments from the lives of John, Lucy, Toussaint Grey, the repo man and others. Messersmith's specificity makes it feel as though each character is destined to repeat those same moments, each permanently trapped in the purgatory of their own three-minute song.

Musically, The Reluctant Graveyard is as glorious, colorful and eye-popping as any album released this year — by anyone. Even with the underlying 'undead' theme, these songs transpire in a relentlessly catchy, 30-minute blur. It's an easy album to put on repeat, just to hear the glorious hooks emerge time after time. It would be a crime not to recognize the contributions of Messersmith's band: Andy Thompson, Brian Tighe and Dan Lawonn provide an endlessly entertaining array of organ riffs, guitar licks, drum fills, bold keyboards and string parts that are alternately cheerful and tear-jerking. As Messersmith and his band swirl together decades of pop music, it becomes easy to play the old 'spot the influence' game. But we would be wise to avoid the temptation of name-dropping Messersmith's historical counterparts, as evidenced by Messersmith's own song, "Dillinger Eyes." The song's protagonist robs banks, is chased by police, gets gunned down and is then immortalized in a newspaper photograph. Yet everyone the bankrobber meets seems only to notice that his eyes bear a striking resemblance to the even more notorious criminal, John Dillinger. Hmmm, let's see here: setting out on your own line of work, being very successful at it, yet your defining characteristic is how you are directly compared to someone else. Messersmith's high degree of self-awareness is impressive, amusing and refreshing. Even more cynically, a news photographer swoops in to photograph the dying bankrobber and winds up winning the Pulitzer, yet another beneficiary of the Dillinger resemblance. It's only a matter of time before someone starts to emulate Jeremy Messersmith, and really, why wouldn't they?

I'll be the first to admit I've probably overthought this. The Reluctant Graveyard is a thoroughly entertaining album from start to finish; for all the talk of death, proceedings never even approach dreariness. Messersmith has also hinted to the press that this may be his last pop album; to paraphrase what he said to City Pages' Andrea Swensson in a recent article, his next record may be something that could never get played on the radio. While I applaud Messersmith for his ingenuity and reinvention, it feels a bit like Michael Jordan walking away from the NBA at the height of his powers (coming off three straight championships) to go play baseball for the Birmingham Barons. Of course, MJ eventually returned to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 record and three more titles... so the local scene shouldn't prepare for the retreat of the Messersmith juggernaut any time soon. He may be the nicest guy in the room, but he's also the best, and he isn't afraid to show it.