Come on in, says Joel Harkin. Let’s talk about Memphis, the family dog who made home visits to Donegal so sweet, until she died. Let’s encounter Mark Loughrey, a mate who plays guitar in Berlin. And of course you may already know the dad and the girlfriend – twin subjects of ‘Charlie and Deirdre’, that swirling picture about separation anxiety. Come in, the gang’s all present.
Joel Harkin’s first album is populated by good souls and fraught circumstance. ‘No Recycling’ is a visit to Alicante where the ex-pats live carelessly while the locals are service workers. It’s a moral story about wealth inequality that’s distantly related to the punk anthem, ‘Holidays In The Sun’. And as with many Joel songs, there’s a finely tuned unease. He sings with an ache that recalls Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes while his cheap reverb pedal squalls and hums and sets off turbulence.
He writes about Belfast in the throes of redevelopment. ‘Old Churches’ is the Ormeau Road losing dignity to the wash of capital. But Joel’s most affecting travelogue is still ‘Lake Irene’. It seems to involve the Rocky Mountains and the Lisburn Road. There is cherry blossom in Kyoto and weird discourse about the way that a traveller becomes a cartoon version of himself abroad – and thus an embarrassment when he returns, cloaked in the new persona. There’s also a side story about the value of trusted friends. Quite the tune.
Onstage, Joel is garrulous and may seem gauche. But the songs tell an alternate story. He’s a fine student of human nature and he writes songs to fit peculiar, wiry emotions. His solo gigs have relied on the quiet-loud dynamic but these studio recordings have grace and diversity. On ‘Silver Line’ the pedal steel is woozy and splendid while Conor and Nicole Harper swap yearning lines like Gram and Emmylou. ‘Never Happy’, you see, is an uncommon joy.
Joel Harkin’s album is available here