To properly listen to a Joseph Huber album, the listener must prepare for a journey. Where to? And what’s the time? Could be anywhere. Any time. It depends. See, a song from Joseph Huber can take a listener to a different place each time the record plays. Prepare for a tide of emotions, evocative memories, recollections of places not visited or thought of for years. Melancholy. Happiness and cheer. Sorrow and regret. Optimism and steely reserve. Huber can make a listener feel the varying, tempestuous ride through life within the songs he gives his audience.
Huber’s latest release, Moondog, is a near-perfect collection of all the sounds and themes he’s cultivated through his solo years, from Bury Me Where I Fall to Tongues of Fire to The Hanging Road to The Suffering Stage. Once a member of the famed .357 String Band out of Milwaukee that met its demise way too soon, Huber took the break-up in stride and has become one the greatest (and certainly *the most* underrated) artists of our time.
Huber’s previous record, The Suffering Stage, is a journey through the suffering of life and its different stages. Tongues of Fire, probably the most accessible of all Huber records, is a more carefree, rambling trip through America’s heartland. And yet Moondog finds Huber throwing all his favorite themes into a hobo’s bindle, pointing his boots North to Wisconsin, and leading his listeners on a travel through what he considers his signature sounds, with one or two detours along the way in the form of slide and steel guitar.
One of the least surprising things about Moondog is Huber contributing six songs that could all be in the argument for best song of the decade. With Huber, that’s just what a listener can expect. When he’s writing songs of that caliber, it’s just expected that Huber will blow the rest of music away with his lyrics.
Huber phrases his lyrics in a psuedo-stream of conciousness type of way. Calling it organized chaos may be doing his words a bit of disservice, but that may indeed be the best way to describe Huber’s verses and choruses.
Huber’s songwriting is what immediately elevates “Moondog,” “After You,” “Another Man’s Shoes,” “A Northwood Waltz,” “Centerline,” and “Where You Said You Would Be” to brilliance. Some of the themes (“After You” and “Centerline”) take inspiration from classic country. Some (“Moondog” and “A Northwood Waltz”) are classic Americana and bluegrass. While others (“Another Man’s Shoes” and “Where You Said You Would Be”) find some middle ground. But Huber is too rootsy to be called country and too exciting to be pigeon-holed as an Americana artist. Rather, Huber’s music is distinctly American- in a way that would be familiar to fans of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska side.
The production on Moondog is something that stood out. As I mentioned above, we knew we would get exceptional songwriting. But I wasn’t expecting each song to be produced in way that would allow a long-time fan to place the song on each of his previous albums. There are long epics that fit The Suffering Stage and The Hanging Road and banjo-driven road anthems that fit Tongues of Fire. It wasn’t something I knew I needed until I finished my first listen.
There may not be a defined theme to Moondog, but many songs do find Huber writing and singing about love and its consequences (beautiful and heart-breaking). Furthermore, several songs find Huber (or the woman he’s singing about) in that grey-zone between staying and leaving- the tortuous point in which two lovers don’t know if they’re bound to forever be stuck in a dance or destined to move on with only memories to remain.
I would also be remiss without devoting a couple of sentences to “A Northwood Waltz.” I didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the songs themselves (they speak for themselves, to be quite honest). And yet, “A Northwood Waltz” deserves a special mention. The detail is vivid (“Titletown” and Christmas lights) down to the name of streets. The story is familiar without being placed. Almost as if we can relate but too personal to be too invested. And that’s the magic of Joseph Huber. He brings a listener right to the brink. Can we relate? Well, it depends on when and how you’re listening.