Review: John Beckmann’s Mortal Prophets Take a Dark, Ominous Ride Into ‘Dealey Plaza Blues’

The Mortal Prophets
Dealey Plaza Blues
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

And now for something completely different….well, only if you haven’t heard The Mortal Prophets’ late 2022 debut.

The Mortal Prophets isn’t a band but rather the alter-ego for auteur John Beckmann. Imagine the darker side of Depeche Mode fronting Nick Cave and you’re at least in the ballpark. Beckmann returns from the hair-frying intensity of his previous release, Me and the Devil, with a follow-up that sticks to a similar sonic blueprint ie: radically interpreting old, often traditional, songs by keeping the lyrics and discarding any melodies you might once have associated with them while adding an often disturbing dose of electronics.

These are more reimaginings than simply covers, similar in scope to how Hendrix transformed Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” into something separate from, yet arguably better and more powerful than, the original.

Opening instrumental “Mississippi Saxophones” introduces the relatively bizarre tone for the following nine selections. Eerie, overdubbed harmonicas conjoin above a skeletal electronic bass, setting an ominous mood that threads through the rest of the too-short 30-minute program. It almost prepares you for a radical reworking of “Born Under a Bad Sign” which keeps the words but discards the rest, making it unlike other interpretations of this oft-recorded blues classic. Beckmann, speak/sings while slowing the tempo to a crawl and elongating/moaning the syllables of My whole life has been one big fight to make it mean something other than what you had once thought.

So it goes as a few backing musicians are employed to enhance his visions of classics like “Hey Joe,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” (oddly reprised from his previous album which was even darker), and a particularly creepy “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” (modified to “Mean Things on My Mind”). The latter is turned upside down from whatever Robert Johnson might have envisioned when he recorded it in 1936 into a terrifying, vocally strained ballad that the adjective “edgy” only begins to describe.

Some equally spooked-out originals like “God’s Going Away” (…and I don’t think he’s coming back anytime soon finishes that thought) and the John Kennedy/Jackie O. oriented title track (Dealey Plaza is the location JFK he was assassinated) continue Beckmann’s portentous spirit as the synths whoosh and whirl along with chilly, insistent drum machine percussion.

Closing the set is an unlikely version of Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel” where Beckmann croons as if he’s a shattered man, breaking down. Adding to that weirdness is pedal steel that appears to be phoned in from a different session, but still conveys an unnerving, disconcerting atmosphere.

It’s unclear if there is any theme tying these pieces together. But Beckmann has delivered another unsettling, provocative, and thoroughly involving (if too brief) set that’s unconcerned with commercial considerations, as many of the most dedicated and offbeat artists are.        

Courtesy Tell All Your Friends PR

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