“I cast no shadow; the dark is all I own. I’m living like a vessel that needs something to hold”
As Joseph Hicklin’s debut draws to a close, those last words seem to linger above the silence. After the passion, anger and angst, instead of open-palmed pleading, a pair of bloodied fists push him back to his feet. The Flesh And Bone stands as a bare, honest account of Hicklin’s trials and fears, as he inches towards salvation.
Despite only featuring a lead vocal and guitar throughout, every song on the album is distinct and benefits from the space freed up by having no additional accompaniment. Here the focus is solely on Hicklin’s narrative, guitar work and untamed vocal delivery.
A whole host of ghosts hang on each breath he takes. There are earthy reminders of Josh Ritter and Kristian Mattson in his songwriting, which when looked at further hint at the depravity of Bukowski and occasionally the old-time romanticism of Waits:
“Well she said ‘Outside there’s a patch of green, where we could be a submarine under the sea of the night and swim with the moon one more time’” – ‘The Eternal Firework Display’
“Now I fall to my knees like I’m in prayer, before that picture frame. Good women are the purge of men; the strong become the lame. Good women are the brightest sun that feed our flesh and earth, and feed a darkness in a man that grows with him from birth” – ‘Begin To Sway’
You can hear Devendra Banhart in his vibrato, but vocally he comes closer to the tone and high-reaching power of Jeff Buckley, especially on ‘Roosters Crow’ and ‘The Knife’ where his reverb heavy performance and his jazz intonations could place him centre stage Live at the Sin-é. Both songs feel like pure emotional expulsion, as he sings of ‘emancipation’ you are hearing the desperate outcry of a man struggling to juggle pleasure with pain.
On songs like ‘The Equivalent In Skin’ and ‘Begin To Sway’ Hicklin seems to sing with countrified soul and a world-weariness that suggests his roots may lie in the toiled American soil of afar, despite being based in Walsall. The dark churning Americana of the latter song, with its stirring shadowy imagery makes it a definite album highlight.
What is universal throughout – aside from the gifted songwriting – is the sense of hope. After being stalked by demons, shedding his skin and exposing his skeletons he accepts this inescapable adversity as commonplace and puts everything into perspective on both, ‘The Equivalent In Skin’ and his inspiring single, ‘Be’:
“We work bar and dig holes and stack shelves and all know the difference between life and living. We drink hard and love bad and fall down and all have some reason to be forgiven” – ‘The Equivalent In Skin’
“Just be the life that your mother gave you, the man that your fathers made you. Be the land where all your brothers roam” – ‘Be’
For such a stripped debut, ‘The Flesh and Bone’ is still abounding with drama and wisdom, where at any given moment Hicklin can turn a phrase or deliver a stunning melody in such a way that it knocks the wind out of you. Overall it directly speaks to the listener, inspiring faith in our uncertain futures and for Hicklin it certainly indicates that professionally the best is still to come.
Review by: David Weir