Album Review: The Ghosts of Johnson City – ‘Am I Born to Die”

The Ghosts of Johnson City – ‘Am I Born to Die”

The Ghosts of Johnson City start with death. Their album “Am I Born to Die” is that of a winding, conceptual journey – not towards resurrection, but into the full immersion of earthen decay. Unapologetically old-fashioned, the Portland, Maine ensemble steers clear of quaint motifs that many people associate with Americana music of the 21st century and embodies the voice of spirits returned to the land of the living in order to tell their immortal stories.

The album begins with the fiddle playing the familiar haunting melody of the well-known American traditional that serves as the album’s moniker. Heart-splicing vocals are quick to follow, though the choice of immediate and consistent harmony communicates a sort of togetherness as we begin our dissent into an Appalachian afterlife. “Down in the Willow Garden” tells stories of murder and debauchery in three-part harmony, set to the stunning landscape of sunsets and lonely cabins in the valley, nature imagery being an effective tool to explore our inevitable mortality. “Darling Corey” feels like a high speed rollick down a mountain gravel road and while the recording will no doubt have you tapping your toes, it’s the sort of song that’s sure to burn the building down when performed live. “The Southern Girl’s Reply” is a sing-a-long heart-wrencher. “The Dying Californian” cuts right to the bone marrow, beginning with the death drone rattle of a snake’s tail and the words of a dying brother.

“The Triplett Tragedy” tells the story of an ominous Christmas morning. The arrangement starts simply, hinting at awful things to come and a person can’t help but listen with baited breath as the sense of foreboding increases and the song builds. The call and response of the lyrical storytelling and instrumental melodies seamlessly weave the narrative together.

At times minimalist, then brooding, then buoyant, this album moves the listener through a plethora of psychological states, but relies on time-tested melodies to give a sense of grounding to the collection. Unlike most of us humans, The Ghosts of Johnson City start with an up-front acknowledgement of mortality and invite us to do the same. Excavating themes of familial loyalty, undying longing and Christian reverence, these songs are a walk through a graveyard, a jaunt through a haunted wood. In an act of crazy wisdom or delusional optimism, this album somehow illustrates the pure freedom inherent in finally celebrating that, yes, we are all born to die.

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