Death and Pop Music

Jeremy Messersmith releases “The Reluctant Graveyard,” an album of sweet melodies centered on the bitter end.

by Tony Libera

âÄúThe Reluctant GraveyardâÄù ARTIST: Jeremy Messersmith LABEL: Princess Records RELEASE: May 4 CD-release party WHERE: The Cedar, 416 Cedar Ave. S. WHEN: Friday, May 7, 8 p.m. TICKETS: $10 advance/ $12 door The state of mainstream pop is in sad disarray these days, with groups like Train saturating the Clear Channel airwaves and rupturing the eardrums of anyone with taste. Cynics will argue that quality pop music died with Michael Jackson (before he turned into an albino bat-monster), but the truth is that pop is alive and well, operating on the fringe of the indie music realm, even popping up here in Minneapolis. Jeremy Messersmith is one of those brave souls that have been keeping pop ballads cool, and his latest album âÄúThe Reluctant GraveyardâÄù is no exception. Messersmith was brought up in what he describes as a strict Christian fundamentalist household, listening mainly to church music in his early years. As he grew older, he found an oldies station that was deemed appropriate and acquired a taste for âÄô50s and âÄô60s pop music. These encounters with classic Americana laid the foundation for MessersmithâÄôs latent musicianship. When it was time to leave the nest, Messersmith headed to North Central University in Minneapolis, studying to be a lead guitarist. On a whim, he audited a class in songwriting and decided to try his hand at the craft, toying with different styles and testing the waters of rock âÄònâÄô roll with a few short EPs. It wasnâÄôt until well-after graduation that Messersmith released his first LP âÄúThe Alcatraz Kid,âÄù which kicked off his trilogy of albums, one that incrementally chronicles the stages of life. âÄúThe Alcatraz KidâÄù received high praise from local critics, including comparisons to Elliott Smith . It also caught the ear of SemisonicâÄôs Dan Wilson , who offered to produce MessersmithâÄôs follow-up, âÄúThe Silver City.âÄù Again, acclaim followed, and this time the songster found himself likened to Sufjan Stevens. On âÄúThe Reluctant Graveyard,âÄù Messersmith wanted to take his personal brand of pop in another direction, veering slightly from his first two records and looking back to his early brushes with the classics. âÄúEvery time I get an, âÄòOh, this record sounds like so-and-so,âÄô it sort of makes me want to do something entirely different,âÄù Messersmith said. He appreciates the Smith and Stevens comparisons, but refuses to be pigeonholed. âÄúNow IâÄôm like, screw it, IâÄôm going to try to make a Zombies and Kinks record and see what happens.âÄù Certainly this album has a classic rock feel to it, with âÄúOrgan DonorâÄù paying homage to the aforementioned Zombies and âÄúJohn the DeterministâÄù bowing to The Beatles . But Messersmith doesnâÄôt lose himself in his references, which is largely due to his approach to the subject matter. This has never been more evident than on âÄúThe Reluctant Graveyard,âÄù which, as the title suggests, focuses on death, thereby completing MessersmithâÄôs album trilogy. âÄú âÄòThe Alcatraz KidâÄô is sort of about growing up and finding your place in the world, and âÄòThe Silver CityâÄô feels more like a middle-aged sort of record âÄî the characters found their place in the world and now what?âÄù Messersmith said. âÄúFor âÄòThe Reluctant Graveyard,âÄô I thought, well, letâÄôs just wrap it up and letâÄôs make a whole record about death and dying, and thatâÄôs gonna be a huge smash. Everybody wants to get a record about that. [Laughs]âÄù While the album dabbles with the depressing, it never comes close to falling in the muck. Messersmith possesses an uncanny knack for mixing his dark, melancholic lyrics with a strong sense of story, sweet melodies and irresistible pop hooks, making for an album thatâÄôs both poignant and fun. Messersmith may joke about the desire for a record about death, but the truth is that âÄúThe Reluctant GraveyardâÄù is his finest yet. The question now is, with his trilogy completed, where does he go from here? âÄúI think IâÄôd like to try something very, very, very different,âÄù Messersmith said. âÄúAs in maybe not even pop songs.âÄù Regardless of the genre, a Messersmith release always promises thoughtful songwriting and philosophical depth.