For a man who has seemed to have spent much of his life clinging to a lifebelt in extremely choppy emotional waters, John Murry, when he comes up for air, generally comes up with the goods. He has one undeniable classic album under his belt, his solo debut, The Graceless Age, a glorious and beguiling hazy summation of his life up to that point. The follow up, A Short History Of Decay, was a much more stripped back affair, recorded in just five days in Canada with Mike Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies in the producer’s chair. Both albums were somewhat claustrophobic, The Graceless Age almost suffocating within a miasma of LA smog while A Short History Of Decay sounded as if Murry was rattling the chains which bound him, exemplified by his cover of Afghan Whigs’ What Jail Is Like.
Now, Murry resurfaces with his third album, The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes, an album which might be considered, sound wise, as midway between its predecessors. Producer John Parish expands on the grungier aspects of Decay while whiffs of pedal steel, Memphis guitar licks and inventive keyboards allow some of the songs to approach the narcoleptic sumptuousness of The Graceless Age, while small eruptions of electronic noise are added, much like static on a radio. Murry, meanwhile, remains his enigmatic self, a dark rider whose songs dig deep into the soul with erudite nods to classic literature and his favourite (mostly existentialist or nihilistic) philosophers. There’s a sort of perverse pleasure to be had in connecting the dots between the album’s opening song, Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You), the album’s title and Wilde’s famous aphorism that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” For Murry, those stars are not wondrous but are evidence of the ultimate futility of it all as the almighty takes pot-shots at us. Einstein was only half right, God doesn’t play dice with the universe, instead he’s set up with a sniper rifle aiming to fuck up your life, a concept encapsulated here in the coruscating title song.
There may or may not be six degrees of separation between Oscar Wilde and Timothy McVeigh but Murry joins the dots in the opening song with initial scenes of the Oklahoma bomber gathering the materials for his deadly operation as the ghost of Oscar Wilde smirks at the current state of the union. For Murry fans the song will be familiar, having been previously released in various guises on two limited edition EPs. Here, it has its Sunday clothes on as Murry and Parish dress it in a distressed country rock fashion. Pedal steel features, but the drums are robotic and there’s no twang in the guitars, rather, short staccato stabs intrude towards the end of this dystopian vision. Perfume & Decay is another song previously released but here it has a more propulsive drive as Murry’s relationship accelerates into a train wreck with a cruel sense of inevitability, amplified by its sudden ending. Several songs are in thrall to Murry’s past. Di Kreutser Sonata, sonically, is closest to the template forged on The Graceless Age. A hallucinogenic electronic fuzz with faint bursts of whistling, creamy pedal steel and fractured guitar, it doesn’t exactly float, It’s more like a pestilential mist descending, as Murry invokes Tolstoy’s novella about a fractured family. Ones + Zeros is a piano led threnody which features what might be Murry’s favourite subject, death, while Time & A Rifle rattles along as if Murry was riding with the horsemen of the Apocalypse dealing death and justice, armed with a fiery fuzzed guitar.
A cover of Duran Duran’s Ordinary World adds depth and menace to a pop confection as Murry delivers it in a fashion more akin to post punk doomsayers such as The Blue Orchids or The Comsat Angels and I Refuse To Believe (You Could Love Me Like That) adds a hint of faded glam rock to the mixture. Aside from a hidden track (a loose limbed and fuzz fuelled blend of The Seeds, Love and Hendrix) Murry closes the album with a song which, in emotional terms, approaches the cathartic heft of Little Colored Balloons. Yer Little Black Book is infested with sonic snippets and more of that robotic drumming with Murry freewheeling the lyrics in a manner not dissimilar to that of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. It’s a fine close to what is, in essence, a triumph for Murry.
The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes is an album which is dark and decadent, an immersive listen which confirms that Murry, in the words of The Guardian, is one of the great existential pop poets.