Joseph Arthur is a prolific mad genius.

Like contemporaries Ryan Adams and Robert Pollard, Arthur is a man who simply can’t seem to help making music. He once described songs that made up the four EPs he released in 2008 as “strange animals in a cosmic cage begging for release”; he released an album a scant seven months ago; and now, seemingly out of nowhere, he’s dumped Redemption City on his devoted fanbase as a free digital download, and surprisingly to absolutely no one, it’s a double album. The singer/songwriter/one-man band/gallery artist is a creative work horse; merely mentioning his work ethic conjures up images of an unshaven Arthur, frantically committing songs to tape in a smoky, dimly-lit NYC loft, stopping only to exasperatedly sling paint Pollock-style against an enormous wall-mounted canvas. (The veracity of these speculations has not been authenticated.)

Pure conjecture, to be sure, but Redemption City practically begs for it; it’s lo-fi, rambling aesthetic conjures images of wee-hours bohemian city life better than any album since Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City, or perhaps The National’s Boxer. Sonically, it’s an arm’s length from the melodic, gravelly folk of Arthur soundtrack favorites “In the Sun” and “Honey and the Moon”. There’s an Edge-like reverb on the winding, chiming guitar lines. There are loping samples and looped electronic textures skittering across the surface of bedraggled acoustic rhythms; the beat for “There With Me” even borders on trip-hop. At an unwieldy 24 tracks long, Redemption City is short on standouts; much of the legwork here is done in service of establishing a mood, and Arthur’s garbled, rambling spoken-word paints vivid metropolitan imagery. When melodies seep in, as on the lovely, wonder-struck “Yer Only Job”, they’re low-key, never showy, but always intoxicating. As a mood piece, borne of miraculous focus of sound and striking ambiance, Redemption City is tops.

If Redemption City has a weakness, it’s the album’s own unwieldy length. Few can pull off the double album, and while Redemption City doesn’t tank the task, its second disc is noticeably weaker than its first. Arthur has presented City as a listener-optional experience; that is, it’s meant to either be enjoyed in one sitting as a single disc (the first), or in pieces as a sprawling, ambitious double album (both). Given that Arthur himself has essentially said the second disc is theoretically a bonus disc, an odds-and-sods collection, it should come as no surprise that while the second disc muscles along the cultivated mood quite nicely, the individual songs flag in quality. The lengthy, breathy “Surrender to the Storm” starts to wear the listener down around minute 10, and songs fail to distinguish themselves from the ether until a serene, lovely reprise of the collection’s first track, “Travel as Equals”, wafts through and brings the record full circle.

Still, it’s easy to get lost in Redemption City. There’s an ethereal Achtung Baby chill to the entire enterprise, and Arthur’s rambling spoken-word verses recall the best moments of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Already, Arthur has made a bid for the coveted, albeit admittedly narrow, distinction of “Best Stumbling Through the Empty City Streets at 3 AM Album of 2012”. Here’s hoping he can keep his paws on the title.

You can download Redemption City free-n’-legal right here.

Grade: A-

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