Almost everything about John Murry is uncomfortable. From his dark backstory tracking lifetime cycles of addiction and mental instability, to the stark figure he cuts on stage, murmuring eccentric jests between sowwngs, and awkwardly outfitted like an Oscar Wilde caricature, in a suit with red velvet bow round his neck. If it weren’t for his immense musical talent, you might wonder who would put up with it. But Murry’s redemption has always been in his deep, distinctive Tupelo Mississippi drawl. It would be easy to lump Murry in with idiosyncratic musical legends of the past. Reminiscences of Neil Young’s ‘intense’ brand of Americana with that unwavering eye-contact on stage, Pete Doherty’s drug-addled mixture of poetry and near-incoherence, and Nick Cave’s trickster-ly soulfulness suggest themselves. But like his peers, Murry’s incongruity goes well beyond his attire and off-colour jokes (‘Coke’s not that good anymore. Smells great, though’). Even while Murry sings of grief, loneliness, and despair, he manages to somehow be bitter and soothing all in one go – a combination only possible thanks to his genius-level songcraft.
Murry’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’ contained interludes in which Murry playfully messed with his backing band, at one point snatching up a pair of drumsticks and performing an impromptu dance solo, to his drummer’s dismay.
Murry kicks off with the uneasily upbeat ‘One Day (You’ll Die)’, taken from his second album ‘A Short History of Decay’, recently released to critical acclaim. Anxiety-laced as its title suggests, it’s an introduction to the vein of mortality that runs through his work, and the characteristic bitter humour of his delivery. Indeed, the title ‘A Short History of Decay’ refers ostensibly to its protagonist’s consistent struggles with life and addiction, with Murry himself describing his music in a 2015 interview as ‘like soul music for the suicidal’. Adopted into the family of William Faulkner, his early life was characterised by issues resulting from undiagnosed autism, which led to his being institutionalised for addiction. Homeless on the streets of Memphis for a time and hooked on heroin, he discovered his passion for music, eventually stabilising thanks to the positive influence of his musical mentor, Tim Mooney (American Music Club).
A ten minute rendition of ‘Little Coloured Balloons’ was the emotional climax of the show, which tells of Murry’s near-fatal heroin overdose in San Francisco. The emotional atmosphere of the night, although palpable throughout, didn’t become stifling. Murry’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’ contained interludes in which Murry playfully messed with his backing band, at one point snatching up a pair of drumsticks and performing an impromptu dance solo, to his drummer’s dismay.
All in all, it was a privilege to be one of the around 50 fans that packed into the Basement last week. While some songs’ upbeat synths and recklessness on slide guitar seemed better suited to a crowded Friday night at the academy, the venue’s claustrophobia was the perfect showcase to such a moving, occasionally sinister performance.
Catch Murry’s remaining tour dates as he headlines Folkestone Songwriting Festival in Kent, and Take Root Festival in the Netherlands.