OBLIGATORY LINER NOTES - THE HAUNTED LIFE (1992)
By Jordan Williams
This is a great album.
Delirious, passionate, sublime, hallucinogenic. Just plain great.
Jim Shelley, an utterly obscure musician, by day a school teacher, has produced in his newest album, The Haunted Life, music so riveting, so emotionally charged, so exhilarating, that no less a description than "masterful" can adequately describe it. I suppose some might question such unqualified praise, especially when it comes from the pen of a friend, but, damn it, it's true! With this album, Jim takes his place as an essential artist in the hazy netherworld of the American cassette culture.
There is a timelessness imbuing these eleven compositions that I seldom hear in music anymore. A feeling of classicism. Each song feels old as time, yet new as tomorrow. There's also a sort of charming klutziness and innocence. Every Shelley album, and this one is no exception, seems somehow to always be teetering on the brink of disaster. Jim would be the first to admit that he possesses little in the way of technical skills.
In the past three years, Jim has released six albums comprising some seventy songs. For many musicians, that's a lifetime of work. This is his third release in the last seven months. The man must have some ferocious personal demons to have been driven to such a level of productivity.
Those who know Jim might very well find several of these songs disquieting. There is, I think, a very difficult battle being fought between darkness and light in his soul right now. It is to his credit that he has never allowed himself to be overwhelmed. Instead he has channeled his anguish into the creation of several very fine albums. He almost seems driven to create, regardless of whether or not anyone's going to be listening.
Bloom or Die, For The Good Of The Cause, Don't Stop The Scream, 12 Songs, and 8 From The Attic: Each has been fascinating, each admittedly flawed. I treasure them all. But The Haunted Life is more than music to simply treasure. Years from now, I know I will still be listening to The Haunted Life and it will still seem as fine then as it does now.
(Years from now. Who knows how much great music he'll have produced within the next ten years. The next twenty. He has told me he can't imagine ever giving up recording and I don't believe he ever will.)
But that very lack of proficiency works to Jim's favor, forcing him to rely on emotion, intuition and inventiveness. It's telling, I think, that the only cover Jim has ever included on an album was "She Cracked" from Jonathan Richman's wondrous first album, The Modern Lovers.
He shares Richman's childlike sensibilities. Like Richman, he makes his music not because he expects any material reward or critical acclaim but simply because he must. Certainly he never writes a song to please anyone's tastes. He dances to the beat of his own very strange drum. And that's how it should be, isn't it?
In spite of the occasional flat note because of his first take philosophy, Jim overall has never sung better. More than ever he fills every word he sings with fire. And his harmonica work is often truly exciting. Just listen to the performance on the brilliant "Notes From Underground."
I've always thought that words were Jim's greatest strength. The Haunted Life confirms that. Every song's lyrics seem somehow slightly off-kilter, rarely ordinary, almost always mysterious. For evidence just check out "Fool For Love," "New James Shelley Blues," or again, "Notes From Underground." Jim is on a quest into the farthest recesses of the human soul. This is a deeply spiritual work.
I hope you share my enthusiasm for and delight in this wonderful album. It is a shame that with the exception of a handful of far-flung enthusiasts Jim Shelley is an unknown. I wonder, though, if he would producing this sort of music under any other conditions.
But you must excuse me. I have to go listen to The Haunted Life again.