The cover art of Portland, Oregon songwriter John Amadon’s album Seven Stars (streaming in its entirety at his Bandcamp site) reaches back for an early 70s psychedelic pop look – which makes a perfect match with the music, if not exactly the plotline. This is a quietly beautiful but disconcerting concept record about unrequited love – and you mustn’t let that scare you off. Far from being maudlin or wimpy, it’s creepy. Amadon’s elegant three-minute purist pop craftsmanship is a match for his casual, unaffected vocals and terse, sometimes chilling, sometimes nebulous lyrics. As heartbreak albums go, it’s in the same ballpark as the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies…most of the time. Amadon really has a handle on classic pop songwriting: the Beatles and Big Star, through the prism of Elliott Smith, with echoes of the Jayhawks at their late 90s powerpop peak as well as Badfinger. The songs here are typically slow-to-midtempo, with tasteful, melodic electric guitar rising over a lush bed of acoustic rhythm guitar and sometimes keyboards, the bass and drums in the back of the mix where they belong.
The lyrics trace the arc of an affair that either went horribly wrong or never happened – which is never exactly clear. The story is told from the perspective of someone who went in with good intentions, then got them twisted. “I won’t be the keeper of a wayfarer’s house that’s never home,” Amadon asserts on the opening track, Empty Fiction. The way he reprises the simple, catchy vocal line on an acoustic guitar at the end of the song is a typical, unselfconsciously beautiful touch here. By the second track, Amadon is already foreshadowing a desperation that doesn’t bode well:
There’s an accelerator, there’s a chain
And there’s a part I play myself
But there’s a segregator, and there’s a flame
And there’s a price I know too well
Warmly melodic piano hands the song over to a terse lead guitar break in a thoughtful Neil Finn kind of way. Let’s Walk Without Talking – a free download - sets Amadon’s anxiety-fueled hope to a pretty organ melody straight out of the Jayhawks playbook, 1997, the backing vocals adding a tinge of glamrock. He follows with All Patched Up, a crunchier, Badfingeresque number, and then Ahead at the Turn, which moves from a pensive, jazzy intro and shifts artfully into a brighter powerpop vein. The clouds roll in with Bitter Prayers, a tense piano ballad: but, Amadon insists, “I’m not a cloud waiting to drown you darlin, I’m not gonna surround you darlin, I’m not gonna intrude.”
After a moment of tentative peace with an instrumental amusingly titled Xanax – with what could be a djeridoo and a melodica, but maybe just a synth – Amadon goes back to plying his object of desire in Tired Man Spinning, another powerpop number with a gentle insistence. By now, the protagonist is talking about “unlimited possibility and “infinite continuity” even though he’s “not used to being in somebody’s corner, I’m used to being somebody’s road.” This is where the woman who either didn’t want to get involved, or wouldn’t go any further - we’ll never know the answer, nor her side of the story - probably pulled the plug. The next song, a gorgeously sad piano-and-guitar ballad titled Lost Land, leaves no doubt:
Living in a lost land
But I know where you are
All the flowers you plant
They only glow in the dark
And by now she’s being cast as a possible “last pleasure in the hour of doom” – her pursuer makes it clear that he’s planning on dying with her.
Musically, the rest of the album is quite beautiful, but not lyrically convincing – stalkers don’t typically go away so easily. Palace of Ruin – which cleverly references the Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love – paints a picture in a “squalid room, looking at a broken old man, buried in a puddle of blood” – it’s not clear who, or for that matter how many people are either killing or being killed here, and it’s genuinely chilling. The title track hides the bitterness beneath warm Memphis soul guitar, but then it escapes with a roar in Torn by Livid Ocean (which seems to be a Stephen Crane quote), the album’s loudest song, ending with a long, lingering guitar solo screaming away – but in the distance, buried in the mix. The album ends on an ambiguous note with Knocking Down Doors, a slow, swaying, somewhat hypnotic anthem that could be a kiss-off note, or a self-critique. Once again, Amadon draws the listener in and keeps the suspense at a peak. If this is autobiography, it’s worrisome (and makes a good companion piece to Jay Bennett’s classic Whatever Happened, I Apologize); if it’s fiction, it’s one hell of a quiet ride. Count this among the most intriguing rock records of the past several months.