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John Frusciante – The Empyrean

 

Thanks to Danica for organizing yet another awesome group post, this time Your Song, a look at singer/songwriters that appeal to our community. I truly enjoy this series, and contributing to it is great fun. Thanks, Danica, and thank you all for your contributions. You can see all of the group’s posts RIGHT HERE.

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When this next group post idea was proposed, John Frusciante was the first person to pop into my mind. I tried to tell myself no, he was an on again/off again Red Hot Chili Pepper, so I can’t do it. I thought of a few other singer/songwriters I might cover, but I kept coming back to Frusciante. Of course, I was just being silly in doubting focussing on him. His solo career of 11 albums and 5 EPs is more than enough to consider him a singer/songwriter in his own right! 

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The Empyrean was released in 2009. It contains a cover of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren (where Frusciante uses no guitars at all), and appearances from Flea, Josh Klinghoffer (also a Chili), Johnny Marr, the Sonus Quartet, the New Dimension Singers, and other musicians as well.

I found this quote online, regarding the Tree Of Life collage cover artwork, and it seems to work as well as any other to try to describe the approach of the record:

“We are all reaching up in our own way and so even when we choose concrete things as the object of our desire, I feel that they are only symbols and that the real object of our desire is the creative force inherent in everything. It is what created us and perpetuates our lives, and so our creations are its creations. Kind of like if you built a robot that could think and feel, and then it painted a picture, that picture would be the result of the precise structure of thought and feeling you endowed the robot with. We’re all grateful for what we’ve been given. Even when we are unhappy with everything, its “poor me”, showing that we still think of that “me” and its feelings, as having a lot of significance. It’s a pretty amazing thing to have this complex network of thought and feeling in these bodies. From where does it come? We’ve traced the cause of matter to something that required the preexistence of time, the principles of motion, space and many other things. The laws of motion, time and the space everything exists into, all have an untraced cause. And likewise we don’t have any idea where things like perception and thought came from.”

This is a concept album, a musical journey told from the perspective of two voices within a single person. Naturally, since “empyrean” means “belonging to or deriving from heaven,” there are religious lyrics and themes here as well. Frusciante was searching, that existential crisis we all suffer about our place, our direction, our purpose, our potentials. It makes sense to consider the spiritual, on this quest.

It got me thinking, independent of any of his other solo work, could this be his A Love Supreme? His ode to the human need for something spiritual to attach itself to, to acknowledge what he feels is above us and gives us our gifts, to help bring meaning to what can be a cold, hard existence? Maybe I go to far, but the thought did occur. Frusciante also came back from the brink of a heroin addiction, so themes of birth and rebirth, facing death, and soul searching would also make a whole lot of sense. But don’t dismiss this as the self-absorption of a junkie. There’s meat on these bones, something for everyone, and it’s all done beautifully, make no mistake.

Of course, I came here for the guitar (who wouldn’t, with this guy involved?) and was not disappointed. It is at times forceful, powerful, at the fore, as well as gentle, caressing, subtle, or even funky, all at the appropriate times as suits the moment in each song. The word that comes strongest to mind for all of this incredible beauty is atmosphere. Late at night, through the good headphones, I felt myself transported by this music, which doesn’t often happen. I read somewhere that it was Frusciante’s own advice that this album ought to be played in the dark with the volume cranked. I wholeheartedly agree.

This isn’t just a rock record, or an experimental music record, or a self-absorbed guitar wankery project (though it may be argued it is all of these and more), this is a truly beautiful overall experience. There’s a feeling of floating, even in the harder rocking tunes, that feeling anchored by organ and electronic synthesizer backing, and John’s wide vocal range. I did hear a few chord changes and song structures that reminded me of the Chilis (is it his influence on them, or their influnce on him?), but that’s hardly a problem. In fact, it just neatly ties John the solo artist and John the band member all together in one sweet bundle.

You know I’m going to recommend that you check this out. You won’t be disappointed. But this isn’t background music, to be heard as you do three other things while it plays. Instead, I recommend you get comfortable, strap on the good heapdphones, and allow this to be your sole focus for 54 minutes. The rewards are definitely worth it.

 

Track List: Before The Beginning / Song To The Siren / Unreachable / God / Dark/Light / Heaven / Enough Of Me / Central / One More Of Me / After The Ending

There were three bonus tracks for the album (mine does not have them):

– Today (Japanese release only)
– Ah Yom (US iTunes Store and Japanese release only)
– Here, Air (free download)

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