This article appears in The Encounter July/August 2015.
Simon Joyner is an American songwriting treasure. Writing, recording, and releasing music out of Omaha since 1992, Joyner has steadily built a resume as a timeless talent. Cut from the cloth of Dylan, Cohen, and Van Zandt, Joyner has inspired countless artists of this generation with his masterful spin on literate songcraft. Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch are just a few to sing Joyner’s praises in recent years. The newly-released LP Grass, Branch & Bone on Woodsist Records is easily one of Joyner’s strongest in a catalog as expansive as is it impressive. Having no anthology or “hits” collection of his own, the following selections stand as some of Joyner’s strongest works. Those unfamiliar with Joyner or looking to make a killer playlist of amazing songs cannot go wrong with these nine classics:
Double Joe- Joyner’s 1993 sophomore album, Room Temperature is required listening for anyone interested in the history of Omaha songwriting. This raw album of solo performances is pure literary energy. “Double Joe” offers a timeless sense of wisdom that will grace Joyner’s entire career, “Why don’t you go see a show? It’s a surefire cure, pretend the drumbeat is your heart.”
Joy Division- 1994’ s The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll placed Joyner on the international songwriting map and it was famously played in its entirety by legendary DJ John Peel. The closing track has become a classic in its depiction of passing youth and the ensuing confusion.
I Wrote a Song about the Ocean- The music throughout Simon’s fourth LP, 1996’s Songs for the New Year, establish the somewhat out-of-tune tunefulness he still employs to great effect. This song has all the hooks, insights, and imagery that endear Joyner to singer-songwriter fans the world over.
Bring Down Goliath- This driving number that opens 1998’s Yesterday Tomorrow and In Between proves that Joyner’s folk songs have a pounding rock and roll heart. Over the years “Goliath” has become an in-concert staple.
One for the Catholic Girls- Not just confined to LPs, some of Joyner’s best works have sprung up on numerous compilations, EPs, and 7s. This composition from 1998 is a lo-fi masterpiece giving us the timeless self-aware observation, “If I was drunk, I didn’t let on.”
My Life is Sweet- Throughout the Joyner discography a balance is struck between the lowest of lo-fi recordings and masterfully executed studio productions. This standout track from 2001’s Hotel Lives features the percussion talents of Wilco’s Glenn Kotche. The playing, singing, and writing on this gem perfectly embody the depths of its characters drunken escapism.
The Only Living Boy in Omaha- On 2006’s excellent Skeleton Blues Joyner presents this classic, both a play on his namesake and his hometown. Stretching over an epic seven minutes is nothing new for a Joyner song. This one reaches orchestral catatonic heights on an outro that is pure shattered beauty, a beyond signature work.
Under my Skin Again- In a perfect world Simon Joyner songs have occupied the radio dial since 1992. Unfortunately, most of his works run a touch too long for modern programming. This jewel off the recently released Grass, Branch & Bone may be the closest Joyner has come to a possible crossover. With its beautiful melody on love and drifting, we are given the sage advice, “Make like a tree boy, lay down some roots.”
Nostalgia Blues- For a man with several masterworks, the sheer quality of this closing track off Grass, Branch & Bone is staggering. Anyone anywhere near their middle age years can easily relate to this timeless tale of time passing and, “All those sweet dreams we bartered and sold so long ago.”