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Stone Jack Jones
Ancestor Barnaby Smith , March 18th, 2014 10:44

Stone Jack Jones' biography, to be found at most of his online homes, makes perhaps too much of the fact he comes from a long line of West Virginian coal miners, as if that is meant to invest added earthiness in his majestically dark country-folk, a grittiness that qualifies him as somehow valid as this kind of artist. And granted, Ancestor does appear to have its fair share of calloused hands and rural toil, yet that is to reduce this breathtakingly insightful and poetic artist and this exceptional album to one mere idea, when in fact this music sprawls in all manner of directions, from religion to loneliness to romance to friendship.

The grim simplicity of one middle-aged man and his guitar (or banjo, as on opener 'O Child') is elevated by electric effects, organs, samples and the perfect backing vocals of long-time friend Patty Griffin. This multi-dimensional take on American balladry is hardly new – Kurt Wagner, who appears on Ancestor, is one to have crystallised the art – yet there is a quality to Jones' peculiar brand of nihilistic zeal that makes him original. Though there is something of an age gap between the two men, the last singer-songwriter that approached melancholy in such a beautifully, shamelessly indulgent, world-weary way was Mike Bones on A Fool For Everyone (2009).

Yet the album is not slow or lacking energy. There is an upbeat rhythm to many of these songs, and even humour. Indeed, Ancestor is something of a brighter offering than his previous record, 2006's Bluefolk. A huge factor in this must be Griffin, who arrives on second track 'Jackson' and brings a warm, rather matronly feel to one of Jones' least desperate songs. Later, she soars again on 'Joy', Jones' own idiosyncratic gospel hymn, its devotional feel balanced by a certain sardonic snarl in Jones' delivery and apparently faith-based lyrics.

The album's stunning high-point comes with 'The State I'm In', a deep, disturbing song that has echoes of Beck's 'Nobody's Fault But My Own'; bits of Bill Callahan; and with its trumpet, Tom Waits (though Jones is more melodic). There is universality to this song's sense of defeat and depression, whereas elsewhere he does hone in specifically on – admittedly – life underground. 'Black Coal' does as it says, mourning the miner's mysterious life, and while it is not as affecting as the album's best songs, it is amongst the bleakest and a crucial, heartfelt presence on a record that is, after all, called Ancestor. There are nods to his lineage, yet Jones' music is certainly not defined by it.

The warped nursery rhyme that is 'Red Red Rose' veers the record into more gothic territory, while the weighty drone of 'Anyone' only adds to the disoriented gloom the singer seems to carry. However, the parts of Ancestor add up to something striking. Like some Elliot Smith albums, the despair is presented in such a way as to be movingly positive, in an "only way is up" kind of way. Then there is the enlightenment that comes from bitter experience. Pain can only go so far, and fears realised are fears no more. How strangely uplifting misery can be when it is documented with wisdom and soul.

I was getting to grips with this album at the same time as being overawed by Matthew McConaughey's performance in True Detective. The barren plains and barren universe depicted in that show are a good fit with the atmosphere on Ancestor, even if the singer's desolation leaves room for hope, reinvention and release amid the brooding. McConaughy's character Rust Cohle says in an early episode he's not good at parties. Stone Jack Jones, with his wry humour and caustic understatement, might be slightly better, but not much.

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