If you want easy listening, then the new album from Joshua Powell and the Great Train Robbery will not be what you are looking for. However, that is not necessarily the artist’s intention.
The third album from Powell (an AU alumnus) is best understood in the context of his previous work. “Alyosha” is a noticeable step away from his sophomore effort “Man is Born to Trouble,” so much so that at times it sounds like it was recorded by a different artist. Powell describes the album as “psychedelic folk,” a statement that is immediately affirmed in the first track ‘Gunfighter Ballad for the 21st Century.’ A steady undercurrent of distorted and distant guitar picking is covered by a wash of woozy voices singing vaguely poetic lyrics. This sound, however, is not completely unrecognizable. Powell sites Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver and more as inspirations. His fascination with this breed of deeply contemplative music shows throughout “Alyosha”.
In response to a comment on this shift in tone, Powell said that the album is “more melancholic—there aren’t any songs designed as hooks. It’s a record designed for intent listening.” Powell demands his listeners’ attention and draws back in order to beckon the listener into the world of his music.
This is not an album you can simply hum along to as you work, rather, it asks that you pay close attention to the various facets of each track. Except for “The Farmer and the Viper,” which is impossible not to compare to songs like Mumford and Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer,” listeners will not find much that reaches out to grab them or have them head-banging in the car. In fact, the closest the album usually ever gets to up-tempo is the relentless, rather generic, four-four churning found in tracks like “Indiana” and “Petrichor.”
Powell asserts that this change in his writing reflects an effort to avoid trying to write an album in a certain format just to meet expectations. “There was always a conscious effort on the past records to intersperse the quiet music with uptempo songs to keep people engaged,” he said. “I shed that fear in favor of making the record a contemplative experience. I didn’t want to put a fast song or a loud song just to put it there. None came up organically in the year it took to write this, so I didn’t force it.”
All this talk of artistic integrity and listener appreciation begs the question: does Powell reward the undivided attention he asks from listeners? Perhaps, but not necessarily for the whole length of the album. Simply put, though Powell’s attention to experimentation and thoughtful lyrics is admirable, the majority of the album simply does not deviate enough from its formula of guitar picking, effects pedal tricks and distant vocals to merit the kind of intent listening he says it takes to understand his work. In fact, Powell’s voice is often so distorted or masked behind waves of reverb that the apparently important lyrical content is lost without going off to read it elsewhere.
This is not to say the musical landscape of “Alyosha” is a totally flat one. There is evidence throughout of Powell’s ongoing maturation as an artist. “Telekinesis” marks a refreshing shift later in the album with its crunching electric guitars and faster pacing, while “Birth Control” generates a sense of disquiet with its foggy atmosphere and furtive lyrics: “I spit and I cussed, ‘cause I have issues with trust, might as well avoid the hell-fire I can control.” The album’s turning point song “Indiana” is a touching ode to Powell’s current residence, even it if runs a bit long. “Left the Academy” offers a peaceful and intelligently-written close to what is often a restless album.
Ultimately the issue with “Alyosha” is that it asks much of listeners without following up on its self-generated hype. It is clear that a great deal of thought went into the production of the album, but intellectual-sounding song titles and inspiration from “Dostoevskian archetypes” will only carry an album so far. It is this overwhelming attention to the mental rather than emotional side of music-making that makes “Alyosha” play more like an essay than a poem. Personal preferences aside, music can only by head-driven for so long before it loses touch with a listener’s heart.
Joshua Powell and the Great Train Robbery offer an ambitious but often repetitive variation on the folk genre with “Alyosha.” Powell’s attention to detail is commendable and in many tracks is crystal clear and compelling, but in most songs these details are often lost in the vaguely sleepy and contemplative aura that pervades the album.