“If I hear everybody’s story, I’ll forget to write a story of my own”. This final line to the chorus of “Everybody’s Story” is well-heeded during Joshua Batten’s new release which makes well sure the full story is told. “Learn to Live Again” is a quintessential concept album spanning 75 colorful minutes, a giant accomplishment which lifts Batten’s career to the next level. The tale is broken up into four sections: Distress, Depression, Assessment and Acceptance. If that sounds like a heavy road to take, consider the years it was written and recorded. The story is both personal and trans-personal, detailing the journey we collectively take when faced with an overwhelming societal dilemma but primarily tracing Batten’s own personal struggles during that span of time. Although we can easily ascribe the recent pandemic as being the primary instigator, the lyrics are wisely oblique – referring only to “the change” rather than anything more specific – so that the concept doesn’t get locked in to any one dated incident.
Batten wields a wide range of musical styles to tell his story and he succeeds in most all of them. The phrase “there’s something here for everyone” is apt but the majority of the material is accessible enough that most music listeners will enjoy the whole thing. The album opens up with style and grace as violin and cello introduce the Prelude theme, an ideal way to launch a conceptual project like this. Batten’s piano then offers a mournful but sublime entrance to the Distress chapter. The tale is related from the perspective of a somewhat-prophetic narrator who can see the full arc of the calamity that is about to hit. While life doesn’t usually play out that way (did we realize in April of 2020 how long our lives would be impacted?), it does make for good storytelling.
“Heavy Road” is about as radio-friendly a track as the album has to offer. Perhaps therein lies the reason it’s actually a little less interesting musically than what follows, but Batten quickly establishes his skill as a lyricist: “Now it feels like your only concern is suppression, Stirring things up ‘till I’m down in depression. What started out small, a mild irritation in just a few days has become intimidation.” He knows how to skillfully phrase the words of his story to flow naturally to engage the listener, as well as adding harmonies in just the right spots. “Waiting For The Moment” is a foot-stomping bluesy followup, where Batten can shine on his strengths, including a rousing chorus with those well-placed backup vocals. Jesse Bates gets to pound the skins hard on this one, making it hard to sit still. Even better is “Fortress”, Jason Vorherr’s beautifully-toned bass driving the pacing as David Van Pelt’s keyboards add much to this moody piece, culminating in a dual-guitar solo.
Although Part Two is titled Depression, “Everybody’s Story” enters with a sunny lilt, kind of a happy sibling of Zep’s “Thank You”. The addition of Silas Palmer’s accordion brings this well-written folk song to life, recounting the overhearing of international accents while being a tourist in Rome. Hop on a jet and we’re over to the UK just in time for tea with “Oh, Britannia” where Batten’s flying colors of nostalgia are on display. Dropping clever Beatles hints amidst this boppy tune, it’s one more track that ironically is bound to ward off any depression. We then segue right into the title track, the nearly-anthemic “Learn to Live Again”. It’s a worthy song to carry the name of the album with a wallop of a chorus, I just wish the guitar solo had been even more over-the-top guitar-hero’ish, with a video featuring Batten standing on top of a mountain as he wails high up on the fret-board. Back down to earth, some serious guitar licks are indeed laid out on “Give Up The Throne” by guest slinger Simon Hosford, another stomping tune with a “Witchy Woman” vibe.
The final third of the album, starting with “Circuit Breaker” is perhaps the highlight of the whole recording. Jesse Bates’ drums surround the listener with a standout performance as Batten raises the musical bar higher on this short but brilliant piece then expanding into the longest track, “Existential Guardian”, itself split into 3 movements over 14 minutes. With more than a tip of the hat to his prog-rock foundations, this is in “Funeral For A Friend” – era Elton John territory, carrying grandeur and relatability in equal amounts. Despite the musical muscle on display, it’s still Batten’s lyrics and vocals that drive the show, often supported by his fingers on the piano. As the centerpiece of the album, Batten rises to the occasion to pull out all of the stops. When the final minute and a half guitar solo ends into a blaze of closing violin and cello, it feels we have reached the climactic finale of the album.
But wait, there’s more! “Cut You Adrift” is a consummate blues song, where Batten’s vocal delivery and distorted guitar battle for dominance. Once again, his phrasing is impeccable as he sings, “Leave me on an island of fear and dismay, The ship is going down, but I’m working up the strength To cut you adrift, and push you away. Everybody’s got their demons wrapped up inside, It’s time I stopped waiting, I’m gonna learn how to turn with the tide.” “Open Box” follows, a glorious life-affirming song that should be included in a soundtrack to a movie somewhere for the closing song. “Life is an open box, Take it apart, and break the rules, Rebuild it piece by piece, Turn it into something new, Just imagine what we can do.” Another absolute gem of the album. Finally, “The End Is Not The End” brings it all together, incorporating some previous themes and reassembling them into a definitive final statement. When the voices rise up to sing the final “‘Cause now I know the end is not the end!” the revelatory moment is goose-bump-inducing, which then rides out through an extended guitar solo before concluding with stripped-back piano.
The strengths of “Learn To Live Again” are plentiful. Above all, Batten is able to effortlessly visit numerous styles of music while excelling in each one’s arrangement and performance. A remarkable feat to be sure. If there’s any one downside to the album, it’s simply that there’s too much quality material to take in at once. The final 5 songs are some of the best here but they don’t even begin until over 40 minutes into the album, and it’d be a shame if the listener is fatigued by the time they begin. Without much obvious filler to let go of there’s no easy solution, so the advice is to pace one’s self and maybe treat this as a double album that can be enjoyed in two sittings rather than one. Batten has proven himself a master of many guises, assembling a talented group of musicians to realize his vision. Even the accompanying booklet is beautifully designed, complete with illustrations and notes about the author’s process. All in all, we can simply say, “Bravo” and “thank you” for such a comprehensive piece of artistry.
Released By: Independent
Release Date: October 3rd, 2022
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Joshua Batten / Lead Vocals (All), Electric & Acoustic Guitars (All), Piano (1, 6-7, 11, 14), Percussion (2-14), Additional Keyboards (2-3, 6, 9, 13-14)
- Jason Vorherr / Bass Guitar (2-14), Backing Vocals (2, 4-8, 10-11, 13-14) Jesse Bates – Drums (2-14)
- Richard Allison / Keyboards (2-3, 7, 9-14)
- David Van Pelt / Keyboards (4)
- Sean O’Sullivan / Keyboards (2, 8, 14)
- Franca Locandro / Backing Vocals (3, 7, 11, 13-14)
- Sarah Morse / Cello (1, 4, 11, 14)
- Sarah Busuttil / Violin (1-2, 4, 11)
- Silas Palmer / Accordion (5)
- John McNamara / Backing Vocals (9)
- Mike Elrington / Backing Vocals (9)
- Simon Hosford / Guitar Solo (9)
“Learn to Live Again” track-listing:
- Prologue – Ignorance & Whispers
- Heavy Road
- Waiting For The Moment
- Everybody’s Story
- Oh, Britannia
- Learn To Live Again
- Give Up The Throne
- Circuit Breaker
- Existential Guardian
- Cut You Adrift
- Open Box
- The End Is Not The End
Pre-orders for “Learn to Live Again” are available via Bandcamp. “Learn to Live Again” is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. Check out our review of Batten‘s previous studio “The City Within” album HERE.
Joshua Batten’s “Learn To Live Again” excels on any number of levels: songwriting, musicianship, arrangements and performance. Most of all, this is an artistic work filled with integrity and sincerity. Embracing numerous styles of music from blues to folk to rock to pop to prog-rock and more, Batten’s scope is immediate and masterful. As exciting as a musical journey as you’ll find in 2022.