June 15, 2001

With 1999's Shine Eyed Mister Zen, Kelly Joe Phelps took country-blues to a new place, a peak from which the past was clearly visible in the machinations of the present. The future, though, remained as unclear as ever, and admirers struggled to see how he could possibly improve on such a blues masterwork. This opinion was obviously shared by Phelps himself, who with the equally sublime Sky Like A Broken Clock takes a left turn away from the genre all together, into something closer to traditional folk music. His dazzling slide-guitar runs are conspicuous by their absence here, replaced by more of Phelps's knuckle-knotting fingerstyle flourishes; and where previous albums feathured just his voice and guitar, on Sky Like A Broken Clock he's backed by the yawning double-bass of Tom Waits's sideman Larry Taylor and the painterly percussive embellishments of the Morphine drummer Billy Conway, with occasional tints of cello or Hammond organ lending discreet pastel shades to some tracks.

Amazingly, the whole album was recorded live over three days, as first or second takes with no overdubs, despite the musicians never having met before. Clearly, there was magic in the air, as indeed there is in Phelps's new songs, which bring to mind Bob Dylan's appreciation of traditional folk music as "weird - full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts".

On one level, Phelps's tales of loners and losers from the soft, brutal underbelly of American society have the rustic grain and matter-of-fact fatalism of a Cormac McCarthy novel. But there's a surreal, strangley anachronistic edge to his writing that lifts them into another, more mysterious realm, where you're never quite sure whether the man "Bouncing across the lake of 10 years/ Like a stone tossed from the burglar's hand" is sinking into memories, or into the water itself. As a result, the characters are never easily assessed and dismissed, but retain their uniqueness long beyond the three or four minutes it takes to sing the song.
Besides being a virtuoso guitarist, Phelps turns out to be an accomplished lyricist, with a variety of voices. The song "Beggar's Oil", for instance, has the manner of an arcane theological metaphor, with lines such as "A doubter's cusp, a braggart's pyre/ Sweltering in brandy-mire" seeming to emanate from several centuries ago. Elsewhere, the obtuse argot and jerky rhythms of "Gold Tooth" and "Sally Ruby" ("Stroke the bottom of a sterno cup/ Plywood hand-out going 'cross and up/ Jack your coat against a backroom wall") vividly recall Tom Waits's "Swordfishtrombones", set as they are to a ramshackle clatter of rolling drums and jazz bass.

But it's Phelps's voice that ultimately comes through loudest - a warm, smoky, dark-brown drawl that captivates from the first phrase of "Taylor John" to the closing admission of "Worn Out", perhaps the most personal of his songs: "I live to breathe more than believe/ A reason for this load". One of the albums of the year.