“Sometimes it feels like darkness has taken over. I know sometimes it feels that hope’s just not there” are the opening two lines of ‘Enjoy It While It Lasts’ from ‘Amen 1’ the debut solo album from Mikko Joensuu. Needless to say when you match the lyrics to plaintive pedal steel, gently picked acoustic guitar and the swell of strings it’s obvious that Mikko Joensuu is dealing with some seriously weighty issues. The fact that the track has an incredibly stark, raw beauty to compliment the melancholy marks ‘Amen 1’ as the beginning of something a little bit special.
To appreciate the album better maybe a little history might be a good idea for those of you who were unaware of Mikko Joensuu until now. In 2007 he formed a band named Joensuu 1865 with his brother Markus Joensuu and Risto Joensuu (no relation) and they released their self-titled album in 2008. The trail runs cold at this point but I’ll let Mikko take up the story.
As Mikko alluded to above ‘Amen 1” is indeed just that, part one of a trilogy that will see a further release later this year and a final album due in 2017. This is an impressive undertaking and you have to applaud his ambition and tenacity.
The opening ‘Enjoy It While It Lasts’ clocks in at the seven minute mark so the track has plenty of room to breathe, and the listener time to acclimatize to our surroundings, while there is even a little hint of a yodel for all you old-school country traditionalists out there. If you are looking for the antidote to the current Nashville scene, which I know many find too pop / bro then this is the place to be.
The quite lovely strings again take centre stage but it’s the presence of a forceful single chorded piano part that forms the bedrock to ‘Sometimes You Have To Go Far’ a lengthy look at loneliness and how we deal with our issues. The piano is so strident and drives the song forward in such a simple, but hugely effective, way enabling the slow build and subsequent gentle fade that gives the song its power.
‘Warning Sign’ follows and we are treated to a gorgeous country ballad, the likes of which you don’t hear these days, with a choir taking up the refrain “What Are They Warning Me About” adding beautifully to the sumptuous sweep of the strings and distressed piano / pedal steel lines. ‘Warning Sign’ was the first promo video released for the album and it immediately caught my attention and you have to admire Mikko’s willingness to suffer for his art. Side 1, if this was vinyl, concludes with ‘Closer My God’ which steps things up just a little on the speedometer and it’s stunningly, achingly beautiful. The vocal delivery and the musicianship are second to none. ‘Closer My God’ is easily the best thing I’ve heard in recent times and I’ll be making space for it on my desert island playlist.
The casual listener to ‘I’d Give You All’ might be fooled by the gently, intricate guitar parts but scratch the surface and this is lyrically as harrowing as a song is likely to get “I’d drown myself to wake up from hell just to make sure that your there” is particularly startling. When you title your album ‘Amen’ then the subject of faith and religion are a given as death, redemption and absolution are the cornerstone for the folky ‘Thief And A Liar’ while the piano led ‘Take Me Home, Oh Lord’ is steeped in the best gospel traditions of the deep south rather than Northern Finland. The album concludes on a fittingly traditional note with ‘Valley Of Gold’ featuring prominent use of banjo and harmonica.
Mikko Joensuu has been compared to Townes Van Zandt, Lee Hazelwood, John T. Pearson and Leonard Cohen in recent times. Impressive names without doubt and good company for any songwriter but Mikko Joensuu strikes me as a singular talent and the two further recordings in his debut trilogy can’t arrive soon enough.
Amen 1 is out June 10th 2016 on Svart Records.