Anyone who’s caught Josh Joplin’s live act knows he’s rarely at a loss for words. Speaking his mind like a street-corner preacher, the alt-folk bard uses the stage as a pulpit for his witty wordcraft, both in verse and between-song banter—all without coming off as a know-it-all. On his latest release, The Future That Was, he wastes no time in establishing the album’s tone—offering up the lyrical Cliff’s Notes in the very first measure. “I think therefore, I think I am,” he opines, segueing into a collection of literate pop gems that thematically picks up where his underrated debut, the aptly titled Useful Music, left off with an engaging critique of both himself and his world.
After Useful Music, Joplin relocated from Atlanta to New York, adopting a more cynical, self-consciously serious tone in transit. Whereas his first effort was the product of several years of songwriting, The Future That Was is an unedited snapshot of Joplin’s headspace, a preoccupation with fear and doubt blanketing the record. As a result, the songs feel fresh and honest, weaving heady material with a parade of ear-grabbing hooks and melodies.
Folk records rarely feel this fun, and few pop albums sound this smart. The middle ground is Joplin’s comfort zone, though his lyrics suggest anything but solace. Hummable diatribes abound, namely “I Am not the Only Cowboy,” which reminds me of the amusing “always remember sunscreen” half-rap from a few years back. He pokes jab after jab at post-9/11 policy, yet fails to throw an uppercut because he’s “not the only poet who’s much too scared to fight.”
Proving he can turn a phrase with the best of them, Joplin jockeys from left-field editorial: “We shoot to last / we don’t ask why / everybody loves Americans” to comical self-deprecation: “I’m always late / but it’s really not my fault / time just hates me / that’s why it made me an adult.” His vocals are rightfully mixed up front, trumpeting his lyrics loud and clear.
Joplin also plays the bookish hipster card to a “T” by name-checking everyone from Siddhartha and Atticus Finch to P.J. Harvey and his self-proclaimed sound-alike, Michael Stipe. Even when he’s at his most snide, the prose is usually laced with a dry wit: “Some people wish they could be like Moses / and get their information from burning bushes / well, I've tried and the neighbors complained / I set their lawns aflame,” he quips on the springy “Trampoline.”
Yet behind every laugh lies a sigh. The record exhales with the superb title track, which half-jokingly begs Jesus to return as a talk show host, and the contemplative “Wonder Wheel” closes the album with Joplin confessing: “I’m not sure exactly how I feel.” Confusion usually makes for pretty good art, and The Future That Was is certainly no exception. Let’s hope Joplin doesn’t figure it all out anytime soon.