Enigmatic Singer/Songwriter Clay Harper Explores Quiet Despair In The Darkly Introspective ‘Dirt Yard Street’

Clay Harper | Dirt Yard Street | (self-released)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Those who already know the somewhat inscrutable Atlanta based Clay Harper and his previous work with enigmatic outfits like The Coolies and Ottoman Empire, or even his children’s albums, may not be prepared for this solo album, his first since 2018’s appropriately titled Bleak Beauty.  While that project had reflective, introspective tracks which resonated despite, or perhaps because of, their stripped down approach, this is a far darker, more touching and insular work.

Harper is backed by only the starkest of instruments like the doe-eyed dobro and dulcimer that accompanies the opening title track. There is no percussion. In its most basic form this is dusky folk with jazzy undercurrents, not far from some of Leonard Cohen’s or Tom Waits’ earliest work. That’s especially noticeable in the husky tenor sax that appears on a few tracks.

The unembellished music perfectly encapsulates these melancholy songs, many of which concern the futility and emptiness of life lived by protagonists that have little to lose. For example, Harper describes the opening title tune as painting “a picture of an existence lost in the whirlwind of filth, crime, and litter of the New South.” Some selections like “Life on a Windowsill” where he sings “I had a chance but it’s gone,” are supplemented by dreamy, noir-ish, sparse piano and stand-up bass that mirrors the desolation of the characters.

Harper’s voice has a lovely, almost childlike innocence and nonchalance that makes these songs resonate even deeper. On “All the Mail Comes to Neighbor,” Harper tells the heartbreaking story “of a lonely man struggling not to commit suicide” atop bleak violin and unadorned piano. For “Maybe I’ll Be There” he sings what seem to be autobiographical lyrics of “I don’t care if I win or I lose/I feel overdrawn/Like the warmth of the sun or a murderer’s gun/I’m gone.” In the notes he says it describes his “frequent inability to engage. My wife died four years ago. I’m still struggling.”

There’s a tendency to get overly melodramatic when approaching music this nakedly private. But that never happens through these eight tracks that total just over a half hour. Rather the personal touches Harper describes seem so real and unvarnished that the listener is drawn into his sad yet seldom dejected world.

This may not be the Clay Harper some would expect, but it’s the product of a tough bunch of years for the artist. Dirt Yard Street reflects what he’s seen and experienced with the talent and insight of an expert storyteller weaving tales of loss and quiet despair.   

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