Songs suspended in animation, straddling the border between our modern world and a kaleidoscopic other, have never sounded this good, never sounded more like home.
It’s one thing to appreciate a standalone piece of art, but sometimes, knowing the context from which art emerges often heightens our enjoyment and sets the work apart. So it is with Bobby Joe Hope from troubadour, Jon Mckiel. The short version of the story is that Mckiel bought an old reel-to-reel tape recorder (with tapes included) online a few years back and found all these samples on the tape. The resulting album is the sound of Mckiel merging that found audio with his own work — in essence collaborating across space and time with a complete stranger to make the most beguiling and textured music of his career.
A mysterious, sound-collecting stranger isn’t Mckiel’s only collaborator on Bobby Joe Hope. He’s also joined behind the wizard’s curtain by friend and previous associate Jay Crocker of JOYFULTALK. Together, the pair mould the found sounds from the reel-to-reels to Mckiel’s own bank of sonic ideas. The result is an Oz-like wonderland that seamlessly transitions back and forth between monochromatic moodiness and full-on technicolour psychedelia.
Opener “Mourning Dove” is a trippy delight. Its languid, hypnotic instrumental introduction softly drops listeners into Mckiel’s poetic-as-ever lyrical world: “I fell asleep in your beautiful dream / one sister to another / don’t ask the moon before you hear it from me / how can you call upon the mother of the sun?” When the song stops and starts again around halfway through, it’s like picking up a dream where you left off after suddenly waking for a second. You hardly notice reality nudging you to consciousness with a bump in the night before you slip back into a dream so vivid and real, yet still intangible and tangential to what you know to be true.
The same is true for “Object Permanence”, a song that sounds like it wandered into a meadow of opiates, enveloping you in a foggy haze as it fades out. “Night Garden” is dark and ominous. Like a hike through a haunted forest, the song’s musical abstractions cast shapeless shadows and acts less like an interlude and more a counterpoint to Bobby Joe Hope’s more fully-formed songs. “Private Eye” follows the same extended intro formula as “Mourning Dove”, building suspense with a wicked, slinky bassline that powers a sinister-sounding song that’s more fun than a barrelful of flying monkeys. “Deeper Shade” is truly Bobby Joe Hope’s gem: a verdant emerald of a song that sparkles with clarity and gracefully guides listeners down the path leading back home to the rich, lush pastures of earlier tunes.
Yet for all its fantastical musical motifs and lyrical charms, it’s six simple words from “Management” that best sum up Bobby Joe Hope: “Nothing is obvious… Nothing is effortless.” On an album whose narrative is all about growing art from the kernels of other art, it’s wonderfully indecipherable where the contributions of the unknown sampler end and where Mckiel’s music begins — as it should. The most satisfying art doesn’t have to wear its magic on its sleeve; it hides its lever-pulling behind a curtain. Regardless of its origin story, the real story of Bobby Joe Hope is how timeless and fresh the music is. Songs suspended in animation, straddling the border between our mundane, modern world and a kaleidoscopic other, have never sounded this good, never sounded more like home.