Building Palaces In The Murk: Justin Currie’s This Is My Kingdom Now

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It was July.

Let me back up.

It was June.

And there was a girl and it was summer and we took a late-afternoon drive to the beach, rolled down the windows, turned up the music and wound along the highway, awed by the crooked California coastline sprawling before us in all its jagged, mythic glory.

And we swam in the ocean, that churning palace of brine and beauty where nothing else matters, and we collapsed on towels, and read books, and we ate a little, and we drank a little and we lapsed into a silence that, after lasting longer than I thought it would, I figured was either the kind that was perfect or the kind that wasn’t.

It was the it wasn’t kind.

She’d been seeing someone, she told me, and she couldn’t keep secrets any longer. She thought I was great; I made her laugh and she kind of loved me but not that much and the secret guy had a motorcycle and he was born in Italy and he’d written some famous essay about Hamlet and he was still modeling on the side.

So that was that.

We sat in the sand and watched a seal bob in the waves—the sound of the surf was Nick Drake slow and melancholic, all the world was sadness, and I didn’t think I had the constitution to survive this advanced level of heartbreak. How does one go back to solid food, I wondered. How does one re-enter the world like this? What activities are still accessible for the recently destroyed?

And she got up without a word and walked back into the water, which is where she remained until the sun set. Sitting in the sand, bleary eyed and weak with summer, I watched her waste high in the water, dusk blasting off her body in sparks of sepia.

It was one of those moments where you simultaneously realize that you’re going to live forever and that you’re going to die and both kind of wreck you in the same way.

I tried to get my strength back, tried to turn my heart into steel, but it was like gathering something that had melted—it was no use trying to find anything solid in all that dissolution of form, all that puddled weariness.

I watched her in the water because I couldn’t do anything else. I had been downsized to a spectator and what I had and what I had lost were right in front of me but I couldn’t make sense of either, let alone tell them apart.

All of which brings us, admittedly rather clumsily, to Justin Currie’s new record This Is My Kingdom Now, an album which not only elegantly distinguishes between what we have and what we’ve lost, it gives agency to the latter and suggests that regardless of the outcome of our battles, there are always palaces that need to be built, both in the heavens and in the murk.

Justin Currie has been building these palaces over the course of a rather winning career, both as the singer of Del Amitri and in his own solo work, this being the fourth entry in that category.

The Glasgow-born Currie’s voice is a wondrous thing—it brims with confidence, it aches with heartbreak, it rolls with darkness and it flows with power. And on This Is My Kingdom Now, he has never sounded better. This is a record of poetic finesse and musical precision, but it’s also an electric mixture of hope, grief and soul-probing honesty.

Opening up the proceedings is the raw and spare acoustic number “My Name Is God” which is both a mythic thumbing of the nose to mankind and an ode to isolation, free of both blind and sycophantic followers. “I don’t need anyone,” Currie sings convincingly from either what is the darkest or the lightest place in the universe. And later: “I don’t need you my dears/I don’t need the hurt in here/The murdering atmosphere/My whole career undone.”

In other words, you’ve always been on your own and you’ve always needed god far more than god has ever needed you. This rejection of our own creation echoes Milton’s declaration in Paradise Lost that: “Solitude sometimes is best society.”

Next comes the dark punch of “Fallen Trees” a churning and sonorous mid-tempo number which examines the cost of living by surveying “the wreckage of the laughter,” while the title track is a plaintive and wrenching workout that finds Currie wisely observing, “Nothing’s going to change the way we deal with the ruins of our feelings.”

And that’s just the first three songs.

Later, we get the wistful “Sydney Harbor Bridge” a lilting antipodean lullaby punctuated by plangent percussion. The song manages a brilliant equipoise between being emotionally both underwater and on dry land, and it begins with Currie telling us he’s about to, “Sink into the seabed of my mind/Where the fishes swim the muddy depths of time.”

Elsewhere, “Failing To See” is as soulful as it is funky; soaring with handclaps, emotional might, and a proper warning (“You don’t know how to be around me/Because around me is the Dead Sea”) “The Dead Sea” might very well be the catchiest song of the year and the spry and sunny jangle of “Hey Polly,” brings to mind a more caustic “Maggie May.”

The album-closing “My Soul Is Stolen” is a straight up stunner that crunches the calculus of persona and obliterates the commonly believed binary that what you see on the stage is what you get in real life. Of that perception, Currie confesses: “Whoever’s singing isn’t me/Cause I’m a prisoner of who all you listeners might be.”

And while Somerset Maugham wasn’t all wrong in suggesting that, “A man’s work reveals him,” he certainly wasn’t all right, either. Performance is persona and though it may sort out the parts of our souls that need sorting, it does not, however, provide anything more than a glimpse of the artist themselves. Currie echoes this sentiment when he sings: “I’d love you all to look/But hate if you mistook it for truth.”

It’s always difficult to decide where an album is taking place. In fact, that thought exercise can only fashion a self-confected imaginary locus which allows us entry into a world that feels like it’s ours.

And it feels that way because it is.

We can’t help but project our own narratives into the songs that stir us—it’s a natural default setting. And that’s the reason why certain albums stay with us long after others leave us—they feel an essential part of our biography. They beat the way our hearts beat, they breathe the way our lungs breathe and they crush us in ways we’ve already been crushed.

That said, I’m a nautically-minded fellow, attracted to images of drowned surfers, doomed divers and boats on fire in shark-filled harbors. This Is My Kingdom Now—coincidentally enough issued on Currie’s Endless Shipwreck Records–sounds like it takes place before and after a shipwreck; it’s a wisely observed collection of songs sung by a sailor who has seen the ocean’s brutality and its beauty and knows that ultimately, you can never fall from grace or be in favor with the surf because it has no interest in these kinds of loyalties and will always do whatever damage it wants.

In The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima wrote: “A man isn’t tiny or giant enough to defeat anything.” This Is My Kingdom now cares not for wins and losses—it’s about finding paths in the darkness, resolution in the havoc and grace in the wreckage.

Further Reading: David Porter reviews Justin Currie’s What Is Love For?