Album Review: Joe Goodkin - The Blues of Achilles
I’m paraphrasing here, and in doing so, I hope I am still able to get the point of the anecdote across, but a number of years ago, Joe Goodkin—either on Facebook or on Twitter, I do not recall which, made the joke, “What can you do with a background in Classics—you can headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show.”
This would have been at the beginning of 2016, when Coldplay was the marquee name, joined by special guests Beyonce and, for some reason, Bruno Mars, all of whom provided the entertainment during the middle of the game. And Goodkin—a singer and songwriter with a background in Classics, was making reference to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin’s own background studying Greek and Latin as a student at University College London before forming the band.
What can you do with a background in Classics?
What can you do with a background in anything, really? What do I do with my background in theatre? I think there is a certain point where, and not everyone realizes this, but we aren’t what we studied in college—not all the time, anyway. And the further you move away from that period of time in your life, hopefully, there is less importance or emphasis placed on what your background is in.
But, if it’s a background you are still actively using, and pursuing, I would say that’s commendable—given my own degree has been, more or less, gathering dust for a very long time.
What is even more commendable—impressive, actually, is if you are both still actively using and pursuing your background, while finding a way to apply it to a seemingly unrelated interest or passion.
I’m sure that I read The Odyssey at some point—more than likely it was in English class during either my freshman or sophomore year in high school. At over 12,000 lines, and split into 24 books, the probability is high that whatever version of Homer’s epic poem that had been crammed into my high school English textbooks was not the entire piece, but some kind of abridgment.
What I am not so sure of, though, is if I had ever read, or was even all that familiar with, Homer’s other great work, The Iliad; written prior to The Odyssey, the poem’s Wikipedia entry alleges it to be one of the oldest extant pieces of Western literature.
And I get the feeling it would probably help, or at least give slightly more contextual clues, but what I have found, and am grateful for, is you don’t need to have read The Iliad prior to listening to Goodkin’s new album, The Blues of Achilles, for it to resonate.
An advance copy of The Blues of Achilles turned up in my inbox just after the New Year; accompanying it was a note from Goodkin, who described the album as being a “little more on the cerebral side,” then adding it was “possibly not the type of thing you’d want to write about.” He was right about one of those things—it is incredibly cerebral, just based on the conceit of the project alone, however, even with as challenging as it might be, as a listener, to ease your way into an album based on an epic poem written believed to have been written in the 8th century B.C., what struck me as I have ruminating on The Blues of Achilles is just how diverse and compelling of a songwriter Goodkin is.
Toward the end of a recent meeting with my therapist, we were talking briefly about my attempts at finding freelance writing opportunities, and she said something about how since she is not very writerly, she doesn’t know how I do it, and keep doing it. I told her it isn’t easy, but the trick is you have to make it look like it is.
The legerdemain nobody is supposed to see through.
I am a writer, yes, but not a songwriter—I have no idea where you’d even really begin, but the trick, again, is to make it look easy, even though I am certain it isn’t. And that’s what Goodkin has done, and continues doing with warmth, intelligence, and gracefulness.
I was originally introduced to Goodkin through his work adapting and performing The Odyssey—something he aptly subtitled A Folk Opera. Near the start of 2015, he had been booked to perform his Odyssey at one of the liberal arts college in my town. And at the time, I was, among other areas of coverage, the “arts and entertainment” writer for the local newspaper.
I sent Goodkin a handful of questions over email, and crafted his responses into a piece about the upcoming performance—and in the little amount of research I had done on him prior to sending over my interview questions, I found a couple of videos he’d posted online performing covers—songs by The National and Jason Molina were the ones that caught my attention; during our exchange, I mentioned I was a fan of both artists, and outside of writing for the newspaper, I wrote also wrote a lot about music.
Goodkin, outside of his work on The Odyssey, for a number of years, fronted the band Paper Arrows for about five years before more or less dissolving the project, opting to focus on both his retelling of Homer’s epic poem, as well as the series of confessional solo recordings he was then readying—three EPs issued in 2015 and 2017, respectively titled the Records of Life, Loss, and Love.
And it is astounding the amount of skill and thought Goodkin has—taking fragmented memories from throughout his life (some of them extremely poignant and personal) and setting them to music, or taking a 12,000 line epic poem and breaking it down into a digestible and accessible cycle of folk songs, or his works that don’t fall into either of these camps—like his earliest output with Paper Arrows, or his collection of 12 singles from 2020.
Diverse and compelling. With warmth, intelligence, and gracefulness.
The Blues of Achilles breaks down Homer’s 15,000+ line poem into 17 individual songs—all of them quite brief, with only a handful barely passing the three minute mark. And for someone such as myself—an uncultured buffoon—Goodkin has parenthetically included the specific plot points pertaining to the inspiration for each song, like “Andromache Mourns Hector,” or “The Death of Patroclus.”
I hesitate to say The Blues of Achilles is a “difficult” album, because it isn’t really. It’s not temperamental, anyway, but it is one that challenges its listener, and doesn’t so much ask for your attention as it demands you give it. And I think that it goes without saying, for a cycle of songs based on The Iliad, this is intended to be listened to from start to finish—yes, Goodkin can write infectious pop-leaning songs when the situation is right (like “Tell The Kids” from his Paper Arrows days) but there are no “singles” to be found within here—that isn’t to say there aren’t tunes here strong enough to stand on their own, but I think it diminishes the conceit slightly when removing parts from the whole.
And it’s in listening to The Blues of Achilles from beginning to end where you begin to really unpack the intelligence Goodkin has subtly written into these songs in the way he uses recurring phrases or ideas throughout—changing them slightly when they appear the second or third time. “All of them were bone. All of them were blood. All of them were flesh—somebody loved,” he sings in the collection’s opening piece, “Somebody Loved,” returning to it around the halfway point, on “In The Mud,” then, once again in as the cycle comes to a conclusion.
Goodkin does something similar with the way he sings the line, “I’ll burn your body ’til it’s gone,” which is a startling phrase, but one that is well meant, on “Don’t You Be Afraid My Friend,” and “They’ll tell your story when you’re gone,” on, fittingly, “They’ll Tell Your Story When You’re Gone,” which is one of the collection’s more somber, tender songs lyrically, and musically hypnotic.
It should not be a surprise that, with a project such as this, based on an epic poem, Goodkin places a lot of importance and detail on the language used throughout—and like the way thoughtfully wrote through myriad personal fragments on his three EPs, the use of vivid imagery and hyper-literate phrase turns on The Blues of Achilles is remarkable.
And outside of the loose narrative he constructs, it is the language and phrasing that stuck with me the most as I listened—at times, quite surprising, like the violence he depicts on “The War Lullaby.” There’s a soulful and folky way to the way it’s presented, starkly juxtaposed against graphic depictions—“Your brains fly through your mouth,” and, “The rivers run red with our humanity.”
The word though, or the emotion, that I found Goodkin returns to the most is grief—“Kissing the hands of my grief,” “Grief as deep as the love shared—pain as dark as the night,” “Crying tears I did not know was there—endless heaps of grief,” and, “Grief as deep as these graceless days are long.”
I find I am usually remiss to describe certain albums or songs this way, but my experience with The Blues of Achilles is that it is a “headphone record,” and I say that here both figuratively and literally.
Literally because it is, as of right now, only available digitally—a limited vinyl release is planned for later in the year; and figuratively, it is the kind of meticulously constructed album, lyrically and musically, that needs to be listened to as closely as possible. It is through headphones, of course, that one is able to follow the narrative that Goodkin is building, and make note of the use of recurring phrasing and thematic elements—e.g. the sheer volume of grief.
When Goodkin performs his Odyssey, he does so, as often as he is able, without any kind of amplification—just his voice, and the acoustic guitar. And even in his solo efforts—his series of EPs was recorded using a specific guitar (a 1963 Gibson ES-125t) without much, if any, additional instrumentation. And it’s through this that he creates a sense of intimacy—the subject matter within his lyrics, and the the skeletal arrangements, create an undeniably close bond between performer and listener.
He creates that detailed intimacy again on The Blues of Achilles—this time the cycle of songs all played with a single cone, Mule resonator guitar, committed to 1/2” tape, recorded and engineered by the infamous Steve Albini at his own Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. Albini, perhaps best known fo this work behind the boards on Nirvana’s final album, In Utero (recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota), has also worked with PJ Harvey, Failure, The Frames, and Jason Molina.
Recorded live, in one session, with as few takes as possible, along with that sense of real intimacy between performer and listener, there is a tangible immediacy to The Blues of Achilles as well—songs that Goodkin needed to get out into the world; a story that needed to be told.
They’ll tell your story when you’re gone.
This is true of a lot of albums—regardless of if they are simply a collection of songs, or if they are songs united by a theme, or a concept, but there isn’t always a resolve in the end.
As much as there can be, there is resolution—not really closure, though, to Homer’s Iliad. It ends with Achilles dishonoring the corpse of Hector, Prince of Troy, whom he killed in battle. Hector’s father, Priam, pleads for his son’s body to be returned to him for proper burial, and within that pleading, Achilles and Priam lament the losses they have both suffered during the Trojan War.
And as much as he is able to, Goodkin takes that resolution and sets it to song through a reprise of the cycle’s opening piece. “My tears finally release,” he sings, “They crash like waves upon the shore,” and returns to the recurring theme of bone, blood, flesh—and love.
The inspiration behind The Blues of Achilles can be intense and challenging, but Goodkin is able to make the material approachable to even someone, like myself, who is usually not all that interested in epic poetry from 8th century B.C. Within the weight of Homer’s tale, it is broken down into thoughtful, poignant lyrics—and is able to transcend the boundaries set by its source material to still be very emotionally stirring at times. And that emotional resonance is underscored perfectly through Goodkin’s arrangements and guitar playing, where he’s seemingly loaded the front half of this collection with more downcast accompaniment, and favoriting a lighter, if not jauntier, folksy sound within the latter portion. Specifically, his downcast progression on the fifth song, “My Love,” blending with his very tender vocals, is something to behold.
The Blues of Achilles works through a lot of grief and anger, and in the end, there is a fleeting respite of not so much hope, but at least of peace. Incredibly cerebral—yes, but it is also a thoughtful, harrowing, and often a beautiful experience.
The Blues of Achilles will be released on February 11th, 2022, as a digital download via Goodkin's Quell imprint; a vinyl edition of the album is expected later in the year.