An Emphatic Return to Grace
During his two-decade-long career, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Polonsky has filled a diverse resume. After his mixtape of catchy pop songs fell into the hands of Pixies frontman, Black Francis, in 1995, Polonsky has toured and worked with the upper echelon of music royalty: Johnny Cash, Donovan, Jeff Buckley, Neil Diamond, members of The Cure, Bowie’s Tin Machine, Rage Against the Machine and, of course, Polonksy’s longtime producer Rick Rubin. One would assume such a resume would garner significant fame, but Polonsky has consistently flown under the radar. He rarely gives interviews and self-released the bulk of his solo discography; conversely, Polonsky has a long list of session musician credits, playing guitar, organ, bass and even toy piano.
Polonsky’s latest album, Fresh Flesh, proves to be more adventurous than his past records. The singer-songwriter has turned to a fuller rock sound, complete with oozing reverb, organs and a solid rhythm section punctuated by drummer Jennie Batter and Rubin’s loudness manipulations. Fresh Flesh follows in the footsteps of past Polonsky releases, only this time the guitar virtuoso has a little more grit between his toes. His voice is a little louder than before, though still as delicate and whispery as it has always been.
Fresh Flesh opens with signature Polonsky guitar strumming on “The Orbit of Love,” before descending into an anthemic groove of call and answer guitars. Jonny solos out on a vintage organ and again on an overdriven guitar; demonstrating his skillful chops, sure, but Polonsky’s auteur-istic approach helps texture the music in a remarkable way. Like a lot of Fresh Flesh, the lyrics are mostly metaphoric, but what the songs lack in this area, Polonsky’s dynamic instrumentalism makes up for any lost articulation. This opener sets a good tone for the rest of the record, in that we can now expect robust contrasts of heavy and soft, digital and analog.
Although “The Orbit of Love” is the album’s first single, the second song, “Is It So Wrong for Me to Be So in Love with Myself and Everything I See,” feels like a better representation of Jonny’s new material. Aside from the ostentatious title, “Is It So Wrong” smoothes out the sonic landscape of the album a little more and features all the landmark elements of Polonsky’s musicianship. A little echo on the guitars, then a radical shift in tone as the song takes a turn into roots rock territory. “It’s in the way you move / It’s in the words you speak / It’s in the meats you chew / Hanging from your claws and beak” expounds upon the flesh motif found throughout the record. The chorus comes like a sing-along at an arena show, and there are elements of Noel Gallagher and Robert Smith in the nasal repetition of the song’s title.
Some songs on Fresh Flesh sound like deep cuts from 2015s Another Side of Midnight, which was recorded by Polonsky and produced without the help of Rubin. On the breathy track “I Wanna Be Healed,” for instance, the listener is given a moment of respite from the high BPMs of the first two tracks, in the form of a downtempo, chorale-backed opening few minutes. But then, as if Polonsky couldn’t resist, the song dips into a heavier soundscape than ever before: overdriven guitars and a heavy four-on-the-floor crash through to another dimension. Opposing forces, albeit evolving, are once again at odds with each other.
Most of this album sounds like standard rock music, however, there are some unique facets to the production. Moments where, unexpectedly, we find ourselves miles away from where we started. Like that moment on “Solar Child” where, just after Mark Lanegan’s spoken word piece, the song transforms into a heavy and complex soundscape. Or that moment on the album’s titular track, “Fresh Flesh,” where the intricate minor scales start unweaving to form what sounds like medieval nightclub music. Over deep synths, that analog organ again, atmospheric guitars and a gut-punching rhythm section, the song feels more sonically progressive than anything else on the record.
Fresh Flesh is an impressive full-length from a still relatively young talent. With a forthcoming tour and Polonsky’s inherent skills, don’t expect the momentum to stop here. If you aren’t familiar with the name Jonny Polonsky by now, you might be soon.