Hotel Lives by Simon Joyner (Review)

A collection of stark, regretful vignettes of longing, loneliness, broken dreams, and haunting memories.

Simon Joyner’s Hotel Lives is the kind of album that must be approached like a collection of short stories — stark, regretful vignettes of longing, loneliness, broken dreams, and haunting memories. Joyner has crafted a minor masterpiece, like Lou Reed’s Berlin, set in hotels strung out along a highway where gasoline signs and water towers batter the skyline somewhere out in the Midwest. Some rooms seem squalid and dingy where the poor and destitute live and others seem like run-of-the-mill places where lonely travelers stay to rest their heads and then move on. The rooms are filled with fractured ghosts who prey on the lonely and all the walls have eyes.

On the first track ​“Hotel Suite,” Joyner introduces a character running from something — he checks into an old hotel looking for solitude. Joyner immediately nixes any thoughts of the lunch-hour quickies usually associated with hotels with this particularly oedipal line: ​“I didn’t come here with a mistress or a lover/I’ve run away with this Polaroid of my mother.” Like most of Joyner’s characters, the narrator is wrought with guilt and self-hate: ​“Now I need a hand removing my mask/​If you come to me afraid you’ll leave me aghast.” The song then breaks into a swirl of carnival music and ends in a repetitive chant of the words: ​“hotel suite.” Psychedelic flourishes like these are few and far between on Hotel Lives. Like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Hotel Lives is so strong lyrically that it tends to overshadow the music, which is a pity. If you’re not paying attention you’ll miss Fred Lonberg-Holm’s stunning string arrangements and Michael Krassner’s masterful, understated production.

Not all of the characters are alone on Hotel Lives. On ​“The House,” Joyner tells a tale of a crumbling relationship between a vitriolic couple that come off like a low-rent Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The song ends with her leaving him after ​“breaking everything she can see,” taking her pills and perfume away in a pillowcase — classy. Relationships crumble easily in Joyner’s world, from the unhappy, rueful couch potatoes of ​“Insomnia” to the sexually ambiguous foursome of ​“You, David, Maria, And Me.” Relationships seem to be the impetus for most of Joyner’s characters’ misanthropy and woe.

Along with crumbling relationships, drinking seems to get a lot of attention on Hotel Lives. On the exuberant ​“My Life is Sweet,” it’s drinking (along with companionship and penance) that Joyner salutes with more poetic zeal than even Bob Pollard could muster. The song emerges at the halfway point of the album, like a yellow sun breaking through a rather doleful cloudbank. Most of ​“Hotel Lives” is a rather humorless affair, relying on crawling martial drumming and slow, morose guitar picking,. In contrast, ​“My Life is Sweet” is driven by a slightly up-beat Spanish guitar rhythm and lead reminiscent of the Mojave 3’s ​“Who Do You Love.”

The narrator is preparing to meet his aptly named compatriot, ​“the drinker,” at a local tavern. Joyner proves himself a master of observation when he utters: ​“He said to meet him inside the Blackstone/​Which was famous for leaving the lights on/​I don’t know why he picked that place/​It seems strange having other drinkers looking at your face.” Those four lines sum up the characteristic fear and paranoia of an alcoholic and are delivered so off-handedly as to make it almost heartbreaking. The character returns to his room, only to pass out and find himself flying over the city, turning it from ugly to beautiful and being forgiven for what we can only imagine is a list of sins too painstaking to recount.

Joyner follows ​“My Life is Sweet” with the bittersweet and mild vengefulness of ​“You, David, Maria, And Me.” The narrator recollects a summer spent on the coast with a group of friends, trading lovers and heartbreaks: ​“Then I remember David getting seasick/​And trying to tear you from Maria and me/​Thinking he could possess you was hysterical/​And after you had seen him on his knees.” It’s written as a letter, or maybe a phone conversation, delivered in Joyner’s typical Cohen-esque wheeze, moving slowly on a softly struck electric guitar rhythm. This song is unique in that the narrator isn’t looking back bleary-eyed and desperate, trying to recapture a lost past. He is instead happy to have gotten over it and moved on — a strangely healthy person in a sea of the lost, lonely, and confused.

Hotel Lives is a saturnine and sometimes redemptive album peopled with the alcoholics, deadbeats, battered lovers, lost dreamers, and other assorted failed souls that are ignored everywhere but by the writer and his sorrowful pen. With that being said, I don’t think anyone attacks their subjects with the controlled fury that Joyner does, setting them to music that does much to contain the chaos.

It’s a hard album to classify, having some of the feel of the American folk of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Skip Spence’s Oar, the benchmark in old-timey country/psyche-folk, among other influences. There are subtle whiffs of Bob Dylan, and the not-so-subtle whiffs of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. Sometimes the influences crawl too close to the surface, but that shouldn’t take away from the startling musicianship and the flawless narrative that Joyner has composed. It seems there is a dearth of this caliber of thoughtful and poetic lyricism and Joyner has definitely placed himself on a plateau above others with Hotel Lives.

Written by Bryan Price.