Long may Joyful Joyful swallow us up in their song.
The idea that you can interpret any sound audible in the environment around you as music isn’t a foreign concept to me. Yet, hearing Joyful Joyful vocalist Cormac Culkeen recall singing along to the drone of their microwave early on in their life during a recent interview gave me pause. What I instinctively understood at that moment, after immersing myself in Joyful Joyful’s exultant debut eponymous album, is that Culkeen is one of those rare artists that have to make music as part of their nature. It’s not a hobby or interest for them; it’s as fundamental to their survival as breathing, eating, and drinking. Culkeen has a kindred spirit in their Joyful Joyful collaborator Dave Grenon. The two attract each other like magnets as if they each somehow complete the other.
There are only five songs on Joyful Joyful but within each composition is a myriad of musical experiences and expressions of artistry. The duo dubs their songs and sounds “drone hymns,” but that reductive (yet reasonably accurate) description doesn’t do their music justice. Neither does calling this record “music,” in that the art that Joyful Joyful is making feels much broader than just that one medium. “So come now, let us renounce our art, it’s blasphemous,” Culkeen testifies in “Oh Jubilation,” “For what is art compared to your skin and nights like this?” No matter how many times I hear them proclaim those lines, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Culkeen says the song is “about life insisting upon itself,” which supports my theory that Culkeen and Grenon are more a conduit to their musical expression than composers. Grenon’s sound fields — lush sonic playgrounds filled with field recordings, affected vocal samples, and ambient drones — serve as safe spaces where Culkeen can express their queerness and fascination with religious iconography and myth.
“Cecilia” invokes the patroness of music to intercede on behalf of humanity: “If man would turn to man and understand / Extend his hand and say ‘I feel ya.’ / We’d sing salvation songs / forget our wrongs.” It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life before and likely won’t ever again. You don’t listen to a song like closer “Sebaldus” as much as you experience it. Long known to the Joyful Joyful faithful as the finale to the duo’s live show, it will cause you to hold your breath throughout its twelve minutes for fear that even the act of respiring may distract you from its wonder. That “Sebaldus” is the first song Culkeen and Grenon ever wrote together is a testament to the purity of their craft and the deep well of their collaboration and friendship. If this is where Joyful Joyful started, imagine where they’ve yet to go?
Their name may be a repetition, but their artistry is singular. Long may Joyful Joyful swallow us up in their song.