Album Review: Johnnie Cluney — Love Is Law

Johnnie Cluney’s album Love Is Law includes two sound montages titled “New Years Prayer,” made up of pitch-shifting snippets of instruments, including a chord organ and random percussion. On cassette (clearly the way Cluney would prefer the album be experienced) these are something of an amuse bouche for each side. As a stream or download they serve to provide both intro and callback, so the album is still split, emulating the cassette experience.

Cluney said on a Facebook post that he recorded the album at home on a 4-track and this bit of experimentation gives us a peek at the process of creating the album and the perspective he’s gained in six years. In chat he told me, “I’m at the most relaxed I’ve ever been about my music… I’m in the phase of life and music where I’m just doing whatever I want with zero thoughts of success or anything like that.”

Even though it’s been six years since his last record, No Déjà Vu, with his band Bedroom Shrine, the latest songs pick up where he left off. Love Is Law delivers similar narratives finished in spectacular lo-fi patina. The songs are largely anchored by repeating chords strummed and picked on acoustic guitar with dubbed electric swirls of feedback and the distant heat shimmer of thuds and jangles of percussion.

Cluney’s melancholy delivery carries dusty vignettes of underlying darkness and unease. He’s a troubadour fashioning his folk tradition built of songs of existential doubt. “Someone told me the meaning of life,” he sings on the title track, “but I forgot.”

Johnnie Cluney — ‘Love Is Law,’ released July 3, 2020

“Bad Dog” describes not meeting the expectation of another. “Where a dog belongs / when you tell me how to beg / Give up what you love / love yourself again,” Cluney sings. And, “Here comes your friend, he’s a slow train / watch what you say, he’s a lot like me: we’re good for nothing, when nothing is good.”

On “Men Are Helpless” (joined beautifully by Jolie Holland on harmonies) he takes on toxic masculinity: “It’s hard to know / we play the role / and with no defense / for anything we do / men are helpless / and women want the truth.”

The rhythm and pace of the songs are measured and intimate. The stripped down approach of the recordings leads the listener to lean in and try to gather meaning, like so many pieces of a puzzle left scattered on a table: You don’t know what is missing until you try to complete it.

Lyrically, Cluney doesn’t give the listener much context. He doesn’t have to give the listener anything, of course, but I frequently found myself filling in that missing context. The Portugese language has a word to describe a feeling of incompleteness for something that might never return or never have happened: saudade. It’s a romantically tragic idea that one pines for the lack of something. As the listener tries to fill in those pieces on Love Is Law, it becomes clear that Cluney is also searching for meaning. That combination makes it too compelling to turn away. We can pause here while reels turn until we have to get up and flip the tape over to start it again.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 286.

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