Album Review: Joe Goodkin - Record of Loss

Dangerously personal and exponentially more devastating than its predecessor, Chicago-based singer/songwriter Joe Goodkin has returned with Record of Loss, the follow up to 2015’s Record of Life, and the second in a trilogy of EPs—the third part, Record of Love, will be released later this year as part of a double vinyl set collecting all three efforts.

Record of Life was a six song cycle based around the kind of honesty that may come off as cringe-worthy in the hands of a less capable songwriter; however, navigating tales of friendships lost, estranged family members, suicide, divorce, remarriage, mortality, and more, Goodkin handled all the topics with an effortless grace. Here, again, he handles the subjects with that same grace, however, given by the title of this EP, you should be aware that things take a dark turn very, very quickly.

You may recall how much I enjoyed Record of Life, lauding it in a lengthy review, and going on to name it my second favorite record of 2015. Goodkin, so moved by all of this, used a quote from my review for the press release for Record of Loss, which is about the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. He also had #blessed me with an advance copy of this last summer, while the concept of the trilogy and vinyl release was still gestating.

So, needless to say, I’ve been sitting with these songs for a while now, and much like the material from Record of Life, Goodkin has, again, written a collection of songs that will haunt you long after you have finished listening.

Fittingly, since this is a follow up, Record of Loss picks up where its predecessor left of—literally. Goodkin begins the effort’s mission statement, “Nothing to Lose,” by using the same progression as “Something to Love,” the closing track on Record of Life. As Goodkin narrates his morning routine and misgivings about how much time he spends on the road as a performer, the song suddenly shifts.

When Johnny Cash uttered the Trent Reznor penned lyrics “Everyone I know goes away in the end,” it was a stark reflection on mortality; here, Goodkin unpacks a similar reflection: “They all just disappear,” he shouts above dissonance after reliving the death of his beloved dog, his grandfather, and his grandmother (the last message she left him is buried within the mix of the song’s conclusion), all of whom were the characters from Record of Life’s “Gray.”

“Nothing to Lose” sets the tone for the record; none of the other songs are nearly as cacophonic, but there is a terrible sense of urgency, desperation, poignancy, and an unspeakable heartbreak that runs throughout. 

The characters from “Gray” aren’t the only ones that make subsequent appearances on Record of Loss. Late in the effort, Goodkin revisits the death of his wife’s former partner on “Eric and Gina,” as well as delving into his own first marriage and subsequent divorce.

He also introduces new characters with strong personal connections—family members and friends who have all passed away. In the album’s second track, the somber “Never Come Back,” it’s a grandfather he never met; on “Charlie and Roger,” he remembers the partners of his paternal uncles; on “Sarah and Julie,” it’s friends who were diagnosed with ALS and MS, respectively.

With “Charlie and Roger,” the story is told with the assistance of e-bowed drones and unrelenting strumming on the guitar Goodkin uses on every song on this release, as well as on Record of Life, a 1963 Gibson ES-125t—an instrument that through effects, looping, and multi-tracking, he is able to conjure up otherworldly sounds out of. On “Sarah and Julie,” he juxtaposes the stark subject matter and frankness of his lyrics (“We all turn to dust,” he repeats at the end) with a rather jaunty, somewhat sunny and light arrangement.

While haunting moments are scattered throughout Record of Loss, probably the most brutal arrives at the end in the form of “For The Loss”—a chilling meditation on a terminated pregnancy from Goodkin’s past. “I’ve been trying to sing this song for almost fifteen years,” he sings. “But I’m no Ben Folds or Connor Oberst—I’m not even sure it was mine, which some how makes it worse.”

He also uses the ending of the song to reflect on all the loss throughout the record. Through a cracking voice, in the most human and honest statement, he states, “When a life has disappeared, we must forgive ourselves for the loss, for the pain.”

I’ve written countless times about death and grieving, and my inability to process grief in a healthy way is something that shifted the course of my life five years ago. Forgiving yourself is something easier said (or in this case, sung) than done, but with Record of Loss, Joe Goodkin has created a visceral and cathartic experience that touches on the darker aspects of the human condition.

By no means a “light” listen, and in line with Nick Cave’s recent meditation on death, Skeleton Tree, Record of Loss takes an emotional toll on you, but the weight you feel afterward is a price worth paying. Goodkin is making a name for himself as an important songwriter of this generation—moving away from the “indie pop” of his first band Paper Arrows, this series of personal albums are a master class in how to lay it all out on the table, set it to music, and absolutely devastate the fuck out of your audience.

Record of Loss will be available digitally via Goodkin's own Quell Records on Feb. 10th.