JOHN MURRY ‘THE STARS ARE GOD’S BULLET HOLES’
John Murry’s third album is starlit and wondrous, like being wrapped in the softest black velvet. It’s an album of startling imagery and insinuating melodies, of cold moonlight and searing heat. It’s a record that penetrates to the very heart of you, searing with its burning honesty, its unsparing intimacy and its twisted beauty.
Murray’s previous two albums had been responses to specific traumas: the centrepiece of his debut, ‘The Graceless Age’ – the astonishing ‘Little Colored Balloons’ – told of his near death from a heroin overdose; its follow-up, ‘A Short of History of Decay’, was recorded in the wake of Murry’s marriage failing. ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’, coming six years after Murry left the US for Ireland, is the result of a period of stability, though in Murry’s case it’s all relative (“I think a lot of what we call contentment is delusional,” he observes).
The result is a record that shares its predecessors’ lyrical ingenuity, but this time the sadness is shot through with humour, albeit a spectacularly black humour. “Of course I’d die for you,” opens the title track. “You’d watch me, wouldn’t you?” ‘I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me’ has Murry venturing into the realm of unexplained disappearances – an English aristocrat and an Australian politician: “Lord Lucan, he could not tread water / Prime Minister Holt? He never came up for air.
The humour combines with seriousness, too. The album’s lead single, ‘Oscar Wilde (Came Here to Make Fun of You)’ is allusive and elusive, with Murry singing: “Tell me: what immortal hand or eye / Is gonna give a damn enough to cry / When every day is like huffing lighter fluid / Take me to Reading Gaol with Oscar Wilde / I’ll get used to it. / Lock me up in Clerkenwell prison / I’ll blow a hole right through it.” The playfulness is reflected in the video, directed by the actor Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones/Peaky Blinders/The Wire).
“We had been talking about various ideas for videos for a while,” Gillen says, “And I had this idea of John floating around my house – or did that happen in real life? – anyways I liked the idea of a John puppet floating around upside down and mentioned this to him, His ex had made this puppet with an uncanny likeness and I used whatever technology I had to hand – a phone camera, a stabilising gimbal and a two-euro macro lens to try and make something that looked nice for the puppet part. I mean, it’s not all in focus, but there a bit too much of that these days. I was asked for the puppet back, but I’d already lost it somewhere.”
The seriousness comes from the song’s opening: “I bought fertiliser and brake fluid / Who in the hell am I supposed to trust? / Sympathy ends in gas chambers / Oklahoma City shoulda been enough.” It’s one of the many moments on the record where violence – emotional or physical – rears up, but there’s a point to that: “All of the violence in the songs, it’s not to glorify it. Oklahoma City really should have been enough. These things are going on and on in the United States.”
There’s a reason for the volatility in Murry’s writing. “Violence has been a big part of my life,” he says. “It has been inflicted on me in ways that I was unable to control as a teenager, and as a child. I grew up in a place that was violent. I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up in a way that forced me, in order to survive in a culture like that, to posture. You don’t realise until later that that becomes a part of the way you see the world. The world becomes this intrusive thing and you’re protecting yourself against it. I also realised early on that if you don’t fight you’re just going to have to fight more.”
Key to this was his relationship with his adoptive family (“They didn’t adopt me; they bought me. I had a very abusive childhood”), relatives of the writer William Faulkner, which led to the final verse of ‘Di Kreutser Sonata’: “I will prune this family tree / Cause there’s nothing left but greed / Blood money and property / Love doesn’t mean a thing / When your last name is Murry / And / Should been swindle.”
“I think I’m probably telling the truth there,” Murry says. “The part about swindle, that actually would have been my last name [had he stayed with his birth family]. The second half of that song I just kind of made up while I was in there. Some of the lines I was amazed they came. I know I would censor that now. I would change it. I don’t know that I feel good about that, but I don’t feel bad about i t either. I don’t know that I really like that line, because I don’t know that it’s all that good. It’s a weird way to end the verse. But it’s there and it’s OK. Sometimes it’s OK to let these things rest and to accept you’re imperfect.”
With such lyrical vulnerability, the need for trust when they recorded at Rockfield Studio near Monmouth in Wales early in 2020 was total, and Murry found that bond with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Aldous Harding, This Is the Kit). “Trust matters a great deal,” he says. “All my mad ideas, John would facilitate those fully, and get the value of them.”
“John works instinctively and openly in the studio, and his songs are uncomfortably honest and revealing at times,” Parish says. “I think he encourages co-conspirators. He’s quick to identify & enlist whatever skills are in the room at any one time. I hope that I gave him the freedom to pursue outlandish ideas, and the confidence to know that someone was keeping track of them and would know how to fit the puzzle pieces together.
“John is a unique character, as you’ll know If you’ve spent five minutes with him. He is interested and distracted by everything, which makes him both a fascinating and frustrating person to work with. On many occasions the hardest part of my job was to identify the moment when all that was to be said about an idea had been said and it was now time to play the damn thing. John can keep a pretty riveting stream of consciousness going for as long as you’ve got.”
Together they brought out what was needed on ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’: the simple pleasures of playing guitar figures, of working with sympathetic people, of playing music that has the same ragged looseness of Murry’s inspirations and fellow Mississipians RL Burnside and Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound, Oblivians). No one would mistake it for a blues or garage punk record, but there’s that same organic sense to its rumbling guitars and contained wildness, nurtured by Parish.
One of the record’s delights is a stark and subdued version of Duran Duran’s ‘Ordinary World’, and it’s not surprising, perhaps, that a song about someone looking for the ordinary world in order to learn to survive might resonate with Murry. Has he found his own ordinary world? “In a sense I have,” he says. By which he means he has accepted his place in life is to make music, and what is important is the making of it, rather than what results might be. “I realise now I can come back from things like trauma and the decisions I have made. Ordinary for me has become just a matter of accepting who I am relative to what I do. I’ve pulled out each and every one of my ribs at night when I sleep. I don’t need God to do it.
“That song was about Simon Le Bon being in a grocery store. I didn’t know that until later. He realised that he was no longer famous in that way. He was shopping and realising, ‘I need to do this stuff on my own and figure out how to do it.’ Everything seemed surreal to him. I think in a similar way, I’ve been through the things I’m going to go through, so at this point I feel like I’ve moved through creating records that are about trauma. I’ve worked through those things.”
So, living in the ordinary world, does John Murry think he will ever be happy? “In everyday life, contentment is a goal. But William Faulkner said happiness is for vegetables. Is it? That would be incredibly bleak, and I don’t think it’s true. But is it not egoistic for us to seek contentment when we live in a world where we know there are children who are being paid to kill other people by American private corporations? I do think that as the world becomes a place that we look out into and see as being disrupted and as disrupting more and more of our lives, that we retreat into this idea of ‘find your bliss’. And I’m not sure how close that is to contentment or happiness. That’s the ordinary world.”
‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is not an album for an ordinary world, because it’s not an ordinary album. It’s an album to dive deep into and submerge yourself in, and to emerge from aware that this world is a remarkable place, and that John Murry is a remarkable artist.
‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is released June 26 on Submarine Cat Records