Will Johnson — Scorpion. Out today.
For about a month, the only thing I had written in the draft of this review was ~~FEELINGS~~, because that was how I felt whenever I listened to it. And when I say listened to it, I really mean got totally hung up on “You Will Be Here, Mine” and listened to it six times in a row before remembering that there was more album, HOLY CRAP.
My feelings about Will Johnson are fairly well documented, but in case you’ve missed them, I think that Johnson is one of the most heartrending and clever songwriters working today. He isn’t the sort of writer who’s prone to that enduring turn of phrase you can share with your friends, necessarily, but his ability to juggle words with odd sonic textures and his own plaintive, shivering voice is unparalleled. Sometimes just the words — sometimes just the textures (“Rosansky”, 2 minutes and 47 seconds of twitching bass and finger-plucked guitar that rises and falls without a single word, is my favorite track on the album).
Because Johnson is so prolific, it occasionally takes work to separate his solo output from his Centro-matic output from his South San Gabriel output (not in small part because he is devoted, and deservedly so, to his frequent cast of characters, on this record including regular keyboard playing Scott Danbom and former Centro-matic tour partner Sarah Jaffe), but for me, albums released under “Will Johnson” will always be quieter than Centro-matic records, and darker than South San Gabriel records. Scorpion, right from its name, is no different — the quiet desperation of opener “You Will Be Here, Mine” and the pause at 2:50, the wordless shimmer of “Rosansky”, the epic piano plaint of “Bloodkin Push”, they’re all songs that ache of want and sadness and hope.
“Blackest Sparrow”, spare with just Johnson’s murmur, muted horns, and an oddly uplifting guitar line, follows three large and powerful songs with a song that’s stripped down and intimate in its power, and “It Goes Away So Fast” says it all in its title, three minutes of grief and departure that are fused into spacey distress by the fuzzy guitars, chorused vocals, and synthesizers that build to the song’s abrupt end.
The title track is even shorter, quieter and yet more fierce, than “It Goes Away So Fast”, barely two minutes of plinking piano and Johnson’s own voice layered over itself in almost a mockery of want. The strings that shake on “Riding From Within” echo the piano on the title track, pulling the end of the record back in on itself, a closed circle that can only stand on its own, with the lonely organ and guitar of “Winter Screen Four” echoing “Rosanksky”, this time with Johnson’s voice added to the melancholy. “Vehicular and True”, more of a Centro-matic title than a Will Johnson one, wraps the album up, tucking its ends back into “You Will Be Here, Mine” in both sound and feel, and leaves the door open for, perhaps, the next Centro-matic or South San Gabriel album … Scorpion is a singular stand-alone piece of music, but with Johnson, you can never close doors. Which is, also, in some ways, what Scorpion is about.
It isn’t so much that Scorpion feels like a sad album, ultimately, despite my vocabulary in writing about it, but rather one that’s a meditation on longing for the things that we can’t have, or that we’ve lost. It’s melancholy and aching, but sad isn’t the word I’d use for it. Thoughtful and introspective, mourning, maybe, but not sad. Can we mourn without sadness, with remaining hope to regain something? This record certainly seems to think so, and I agree.