Television’s Golden Age
P.J. O’Connor’s début solo album was released to the world today. Having been a member of several cult-status NYC bands back in the day (Radio4, the Bogmen), and a session musician (Gordon Gano), here he steps to the front of the stage. Television’s Golden Age finds O’Connor reflecting on, coming to terms with, and expressing his love for New York City. Whilst I don’t know if I’d describe the Big Apple as ‘gritty’ anymore, as his promo materials do, it certainly is a live beast.
O’Connor’s travels to this point in his life are worth reflecting upon. The fact he is of Irish descent is perhaps obvious from his name, and in the mid-aughts, he made his way to Ireland, living the dream as he busked around the country, mostly in the pubs. This gave him, of course, all kinds of new experiences, but it also led to new songs, and three of them, ‘Summer Squall,’ ‘Your Vision,’ and ‘Stop to Smell the Rose’ come from that era. When he got back home to NYC, he was staring at ‘the wreckage and memories of his past’ (I quote from the promo materials because I think that’s a beautiful passage), which included his mother dying on Christmas Day 2017, and even looking back to all the friends he lost on 9/11.
O’Connor is an optimist, though, not a dweller on all the bad, and so his musical output here is uplifting, anthemic, and he channels his pain into positivity as he works to present his best self, front foot forward.
Television’s Golden Age, though, is not the product of a guy with his guitar in his basement. Rather, he worked with his old buddy Vic Thrall (known to his mom as Vic Thrill), who recorded and produced the album, and he worked with a community of NYC musicians, including Parker Kindred (who used to drum for Jeff Buckley), bassist Brad Truax (from Interpol and Cass McCombs), and the brothers Billy and Brendan Ryan, who he played with when they worked with Gordon Gano. Leslie Mendelson, who has been nominated for a Grammy for her work with Jackson Browne, rounded out the cast.
And so this an album of uplifting, anthemic music, and it is very much a New York City album, deeply rooted in a sense of place and a sense of history, both collective and personal, on the canvas that is the the city.
Side One begins with ‘Summer Squall,’ which dates back to his Irish period. And knowing that actually makes it sound like an Irish song, as I hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers and frontman Liam O’Maonlai’s work with ALT, in it. O’Connor’s voice is clear and powerful here as he sings of reading a letter, isolation, and the beauty of the Galway coast, and his fixation on pretty women. This is a song that would work quite brilliantly, even with just O’Connor and his guitar, in a pub in Ireland. And listening to this song, I can see my own self back in a coastal pub in Ireland, with a nice pint of stout.
‘Your Vision’ follows, which begins with a heavily flanged bass guitar and then the acoustic guitar and voice of the man himself, as he sings:
Your life was speeding like a downhill sled
A list of unfulfilled plans
Missed opportunities and things unsaid
It’s slipping right through your hands
Skies are getting dark so soon
Days much shorter than they seem.
The song, which also dates from his Irish era, chugs along to that bassline and acoustic guitar, which are soon joined by drums, and an electric guitar, and it moves from the base acoustic track into something anthemic, as O’Connor implores himself (I presume) to find some inner peace.
‘Indecisive Moon’ was the first single of the album, back in NYC, as O’Connor recounts a complicated relationship, a Talking Heads-esque track that veers from the intimate of that complex relationship to an anthemic sound and chorus. I think this is my favourite song on the album, though the title track is a strong contender too.
‘Television’s Golden Age,’ which is also the first track of Side Two, is built up from a percussion line from O’Connor himself (the drummer in The Bogmen and Radio4) and the steady beat of Kindred, the acoustic guitar being more rhythm than anything, and this Talking Heads feeling continues. I can’t actually put my finger directly onto what it is about this track that makes it both deeply heartfelt, and yet just so danceable. But, then again, I’m always a sucker for the anthemic, and then there’s the brilliant lyric ‘We threw our souls in the microwave/And now have to live with the curse.’
The album closer, ‘Stop to Smell The Rose’ is a dirge, as a collection of strings and samples is plaid down over the guitar, the drums, and O’Connor singing about burying a friend, ‘too young to be dead’ and the grief this causes, the need to keep himself ‘from falling.’ As the song chugs along, the dirge becomes increasingly musical and I find myself, the times I have listened to this song thinking how close a song like this could just devolve into the cheesy and facile, as it is pretty much an injunction to keep it together, learn from our mistakes, and carry on. But. O’Connor is not that kind of songwriter, and I kind of fear this is what might get overlooked when this album hits the streets: he’s a damn fine songwriter. His sense of melody and rhythm and his lyrics sound both warm and vulnerable, passionate and open to the world as a whole. That alone makes Television’s Golden Age one of the best albums I have heard of late.