Listening to Jeremiah Johnson’s Unemployed Highly Annoyed, it’s easy to picture him pacing around his home, frustrated by the pandemic and his inability to tour Europe with Heavens to Betsy, his prior album released in February of this year. Johnson wrote Unemployed‘s lyrics waiting on hold for the unemployment office, and one imagines Johnson later sitting down with his guitar and notepad, polishing song ideas, trying to get the anger and sadness out of his head and into songs, before deciding to just make a second untourable album this year.
Which is what happened, with Johnson and his band recording Unemployed Highly Annoyed in three days in May 2020. Where Heavens to Betsy featured a variety of songwriting styles and even used a horn section, Unemployed is Johnson and his rhythm section, with additional keyboards courtesy of bassist/producer Paul Niehaus IV, tapping into all of the emotions described in the album title. The songs are punk in their visceral bursts of anger, but pure blues rock in Johnson’s vocals and wild guitar work.
For example, “Different Plan for Me” is a slow blues with brutally honest lyrics about being stuck at home during the pandemic: “Even though I’m not making money / I’m making memories / Someone had a different plan.” It’s an idea all too many can relate to, having more time to enjoy with family, but also feeling the stress of not being able to earn a living. His vocals project the helplessness and his guitar work, which moves from big, sad bends into short, fast runs, capturing the song’s stifled vibe, the musical equivalent of fidgeting while on hold with a bureaucracy.
“Burn Down the Garden” has a Ryan Adams-esque pop country sound that spotlights Johnson’s soulful vocals. The guitar work has an Allman Brothers-esque bright, happy bounce and the song concludes with some whiplash/”Whipping Post” head-nodding flourishes. And while Unemployed Highly Annoyed is a personal statement of Johnson’s sadly universal experience, he brings in one cover, Luther Allison’s “Cherry Red Wine,” a slowish blues that’s both stinging and loose, Allison’s tale of powerlessness right at home with the rest of the album’s tracks.
It feels a bit cruel taking something like a global pandemic and complimenting a songwriter for making great art out of it, but the way that Johnson has locked in on his pain is compelling. Not in a slowing-down-to-check-out-a-car-crash kind of way, but more in the way you might not be able to stop listening to a friend explain their problems. Sadly, the commonness of Johnson’s experiences amplifies the resonance of the album; if you haven’t experienced what he’s singing about, you probably know someone who has. But Johnson focuses the pain in a musical way and while this isn’t a particularly fun album, it’s also not overly dark. Instead, Johnson is documenting a moment in a way that’s surely better listening than the hours of hold music that led to its creation.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Different Plan for Me
– Cherry Red Wine
– Rock N Roll For The Soul
– Burn Down the Garden
The Big Hit
– Burn Down the Garden
Review by Steven Ovadia