When Out into the Snow is released next month, it'll mark Simon Joyner’s twelfth album in roughly twenty years—not counting a handful of hard-to-find/never-rereleased lo-fi records, and more than half-a-dozen split vinyls and EPs. It’s a frenzied discography to rival one of Joyner's far more successful “post-folk” peers, Will Oldham. And arguably it's true what his press release says, that Joyner is “the greatest songwriter you've never heard,” which raises the question: How can someone who's had so many breaks, whose career has seemingly been on the verge of assured success time and again, still two decades later have only achieved a kind of Jandek level of cult fame?
Joyner is best known as the Godfather of the “Omaha Sound,” embodied by the Saddle Creek collective launched to national attention by Bright Eyes, and which produced such indie heavy-hitters as Cursive and The Faint. For a few years in the late 90s Omaha was the music scene, a huge part of the revolution that took indie music into the mainstream. And while every rock magazine from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork was talking about Oberst as the new Dylan, no one remembers now that Oberst was going around talking up Joyner as “the greatest songwriter in the world.” Bright Eyes plays the MTV music awards to a crowd full of screaming fans and Joyner's left by the wayside playing the same Omaha dives he's been haunting for the past ten years.
Or jump back about five years. Joyner's second official release, The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll, of which there were only a thousand original vinyl pressings, somehow gets passed off to legendary British DJ John Peel. Peel was the longest-serving of the original BBC Radio 1 disc jockeys (when he died in 2004 he had DJ'ed at Radio 1 for nearly 40 years), and was both widely-respected and hugely influential. In '94, Peel took to the air and played The Cowardly Traveler in full, uninterrupted—something that he had done only once before in his career, and would never do again. The Cowardly Traveler is a dizzying post-punk masterpiece, and the “Peel incident” should have secured Joyner's status as the new voice of his generation, maybe the underground's Kurt Cobain. But it didn't. If it gained him some small following in the U.K. and Europe, it didn't translate at all into an American audience. Joyner himself wasn't even aware of what happened until years later. As Chad Radford tells it in his essay, "Things Falls Apart: Simon Joyner Embraces the Beauty of Breaking Down":
It wasn’t until touring in the Netherlands sometime later that it was brought to his attention. “All of these journalists had set up interviews with me and that was always their first question, ‘So how has your career changed since the John Peel incident?’” Joyner explains in a mock German accent. “I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ They filled me in and said it was absolutely unheard of for him to do something like that and that everyone there had been talking about it. I couldn’t even speak anymore.
Over the years a friend of Joyner’s who lived in Germany had been sending him tapes of occasional broadcasts of Peel’s shows. Apparently he missed that one.
Out into the Snow is miles from the distorted lo-fi flailing of The Cowardly Traveler. Like Joyner’s more recent albums, Hotel Lives and Lost with the Lights On, it’s all shimmering studio-produced alt-country, trafficking in acoustic ballads with rambling Dylanesque lyricism and Zuma/On the Beach-era Neil Young mid-tempo rockers. And his backing band, including the likes of Alex McManus (Lambchop) and Michael Krassner (Boxhead Ensemble), adds gorgeous layers of strings and pedal steel. Perhaps he's taking a few too many cues from Oberst's recent success as a jangly rock-and-roller, but Out into the Snow is a solid album all the way through—lots of hits, and very few misses. It should take a place high on the list of 2009's Best Albums, if only we'd start listening.
"Sunday Morning Song for Sara"