William the Conqueror is the band, post-solo singer/songwriter career, put together by Ruarri Joseph, alongside Harry Harding (drums) and Naomi Holmes (bass) during 2015. Bleeding on the Soundtrack is the second in a proposed trilogy of autobiographical albums, which began with 2017’s Proud Disturber of the Peace. While that album addressed a less than idyllic period in Joseph’s life – the confusion of adolescence, addiction, divorce, upheaval – Bleeding on the Soundtrack continues to explore these past indiscretions, sorrows, hopes, loves and more. Produced by Ethan Johns, it was recorded live (with added overdubs) over the course of 12 days at Real World Studios in Wiltshire.
As on their previous album, William the Conqueror are cruising down the roads of loose and raw country-folk, rock and blues, with added harp, piano, slide, and violin, here and there. Slightly fuller and more mature sounding than Proud… it’s still the sound of slacker simplicity on the surface. However, as always with Joseph, dig a little deeper, and the nuances and textures reveal themselves to be multi-layered, his voice an engaging, easy-to-understand vehicle, rich with soulful melancholy, whilst reaching out into areas of playfulness at times.
A superb lyricist, who treads that fine line between pathos and humour, Joseph is the consummate storyteller. On the hard grooving ‘Path of the Crow’, he sings about reuniting and rekindling (but ultimately failing at) a relationship, while the dry and jaunty ‘Thank Me Later’, where Ian Dury meets Randy Newman, is full of witty morsels, aimed at himself: “When I broke your heart, and had no regrets / One more kiss, before I smoked myself blind / As you suffer the dawn of my being reborn / Not your Christian, god loving kind”.
Joseph can do more outward melancholy, too. As on the beautiful ‘The Burden’, all finger-picked guitar, with delicate splashes of piano, backing harmonies, and electric guitar, complimenting the sturdy backbone of bass and drums. While the central title track, the languid ‘Bleeding on the Soundtrack’, concerns memories and their life affirming properties, as well as hiding from the traumas of past experiences, all interspersed with couplets that are simply funny: “Hurricane Martini seems so middle class, I told my friends it was whiskey from a broken glass.” Then the driving, high spirit of ‘Looking for the Cure’ concerns that life long quest for meaning and happiness, whilst relying on the various crutches at one’s disposal: “He was everything he wanted, man / Didn’t fully understand the complications of it all / It took him 40 years to quench his thirst, then the bubble burst.”
There is more musical diversity on offer here than ever before. ‘Be So Kind’ has bongos within its super-relaxed rhythmic charm, that recalls an early-70s Neil Young. The sensitive soul bearing of a young adolescent via ‘Sensitive Side’ is pure southern boogie, while the closer, ‘Within Your Spell’, is Joseph at his most earnest and soul-bearing, the song spellbinding its winding way from urgent folk-rock to reverb-drenched desert atmospherics.
As Ruarri Joseph, there was a brief moment when the world seemed his oyster, what with Atlantic Records offering money, and publicity, as they saw in him some kind of cash cow via his rootsy-poet-slacker bearing image. That, of course, failed, and after a long but slow decline, he turned the corner via a new name, and a new format. Whereas in the mid-00s he seemed a man out of time, in 2019 he’s part and parcel of a landscape that has properly embraced a rootsier, more earthy and honest vibe. Joseph is your man.