What does it sound like?:
Micah P. Hinson is every fundamental Christian parent’s nightmare. After he started experimenting playing musical instruments, he became addicted to hard drugs, was jailed, bankrupted and made homeless, all before the age of 20. Somehow, he has managed to keep making music. This is his ninth album. His songs are simply structured, played with spartan instrumentation and are often bitterly self-eviscerating. He does have a dry sense of humour but laughs are few and far between. The words ‘droll’ and ‘mournful’ don’t do his voice justice. Micah sings with the air of a man preparing for his own funeral by confessing all his sins in fine detail, without any hope of redemption. He sounds as though he is wearingly coming to the end of a very long, wretched life. He is only thirty-six.
He describes Presents The Holy Strangers as a ‘folk opera’, following a wartime family from birth to love, to marriage and children, to war, betrayal, murder and, finally, suicide. The fourteen songs, six of which are instrumental, last an hour.
It has to be said, the first few listens are hard going. After a while, one becomes inured to the relentless misery and can wallow in the subtle melodies and the beautiful little touches in the playing. The percussion is quiet and unimposing, yet intricate and detailed. Unusual instruments are scattered about to add some light and shade. There are strings on most tracks but deployed with polite consideration, sometimes just a single fiddle or a cello and sometimes just for half a track. Micah’s guitar is as elegant and stately as Richard Hawley’s. By the third listen, the voice becomes almost warm. Hell, on Lover’s Lane, there may be a hint of joy in it, a Johnny Cash riven-with-tragedy kind of joy, but a kind of joy nonetheless. Wispy feminine backing vocals provide some much needed softener. A baby’s cry is actually quite musical.
The instrumentals provide a break from the vocal narrative but have an essential role in telling the story as a whole. Their titles, in sequence, are The Temptation, The Years Tire On, The Holy Strangers, The War, The Awakening and The Memorial Day Massacre. They are quiet and unsettling, as opposed to bombastic and oppressive. Micah’s guitar playing on The Temptation is tender and evocative. Gloomy cello dominates The Years Tire On. The War and The Memorial Day Massacre speak more of the desolation of the aftermath rather than the gore of the events themselves. The Awakening is sinister and mysterious. They are almost an album of their own.
The centre-piece is Micah Book One, a seven minute spoken word narration in Old Testament style. Micah’s God is vengeful, cruel and unforgiving. It is intolerable even after six listens, lacking any of the grace, intimacy or fragility present in the rest of the album. It’s best to skip this track until the hidden charms of the other thirteen songs are revealed.
Micah P. Hinson Presents The Holy Strangers is a carefully constructed, intelligent, sensitive album. It is overwhelmingly bleak. The fact that Micah exists and is able to create such work adds to life’s rich tapestry. However, it’s not the kind of album that will sell well and those that do buy it won’t revisit often. For some, it is one to cherish, but, for most, it’s one to place on a shelf and forget.
What does it all *mean*?
Your childhood makes you what you are.
Goes well with…
A harsh, cold pulpit, a battered old bible and a broken guitar string. The Holy Strangers is a solitary listen, both to dig deeper into its secrets and to avoid the possibility of Wyatting.
Might suit people who like…
A challenge. There will be Afterworders who will relish this album. Others should approach with caution.