Talking to his Demons
Moving far away from his earlier pop hits, Rob Jungklas gets very personal with a new album.
Earlier this year, local songwriter Harlan T. Bobo released Sucker, a gem of an album that tracks the genesis and evolution of a relationship. A few months later, Rob Jungklas — perhaps Bobo's chief rival as sharpest lyricist on the local rock/roots scene — is releasing something of an unintentional companion piece, Mapping the Wreckage, a powerful yet intimate album that seems to track the deterioration and aftermath of a relationship.
Jungklas was weaned on the city's folk/blues scene in the '70s, but made his mark in the late '80s as a would-be pop/rock star, scoring a minor MTV hit in 1987 with the single "Boys Town," then releasing his 1989 album Work Songs for a New Moon on major-label RCA.
"In the '80s, I was a pop musician and proud of it. That's what I did. I had my deals and my 15 minutes," Jungklas says. "But in my mind, I'm really a blues artist — folk and blues. People might roll their eyes when I say that. But in my head, that's what it is."
Music took a back seat for Jungklas in the '90s, a period spent getting married and getting his teaching certificate (he's currently a seventh-grade science teacher at a local private school), but he kept writing and recording, putting out a couple of self-released albums. In 2002, he partnered with the local MADJACK label and producer Jeff Powell for a return of sorts, Arkadelphia, an album that came across as something of a personal tour of Delta mythology (including the eternal title "Drunk Like Son House"). This was followed by 2007's Gully, a rattled, atmospheric, bluesy roots-rock record filled with dark scenarios.
"What I'm doing now is hopefully accessible," Jungklas says, "but it certainly isn't pop music."
On Mapping the Wreckage, the dissonant art-blues sound and piercing lyrics full of Southern Gothic and Biblical imagery that Jungklas established on Arkadelphia and Gully are directed toward more personal material.
"I can't say it any better or any other way than I did on this record," says Jungklas, declining specifics. "Something that is as personal as this could only be approached in my case in poetry and song. This is my conversation about a period in my life — with friends, with lovers, with people who care about me. I got as deep into it as I could."
Mapping the Wreckage, as the title indicates, is structured like a journey. The searing opening stretch knocks you down: "Can't Heal Up" staggers with carnal admissions and self-lacerating pain ("Don't you stitch me up," Jungklas howls. "Better off to bleed"). "Detox" is a "love is a drug" metaphor delivered with locomotive intensity. "Baby, it's your strung-out little darling/Dying on your answering machine," Jungklas announces at the outset, before ultimately letting a screaming Steve Selvidge guitar solo take the song places words can't go. "Pleasure of the Curve" swaggers with an almost mischievous musical confidence. "Around my neck I wear a heart of glass/As a memento mori/Nothing lasts," Jungklas cracks, en route to questioning, "Do you want my heart?/Do you have the nerve?"
But the closing stretch — "A Girl Named Resurrection," "The Horse Knows the Way," and, finally, "Transfiguration" — picks you back up, with a peacefulness and acceptance (Jonathan Kirkscey's beautiful cello work figures prominently on the final two tracks) that has added power precisely because of the darkness that precedes it.
Jungklas says people often ask him at shows about the darkness in his music, but he demurs. "By talking to your demons — there's a power in that confrontation that overrides the darkness and pushes on through to something else," he says. Mapping the Wreckage embodies this notion.
The album was actually recorded two years ago, in August 2008, not long after Gully was released.
"He came to us and said, 'I need to make this record now. I don't care how long it takes to come out'," Powell remembers.
"Therapy's not the right word, but it was something I needed to do then," Jungklas says. "It wasn't something I could wait six months to do."
In order to capture the power and immediacy of Jungklas' songs, Powell proposed a bold, unusual recording process, gathering musicians who had Jungklas' trust (in addition to Selvidge and Kirkscey, drummers Robert Barnett and Harry Peel, guitarist John Whittemore, and bassist Sam Shoup play on the record) in the studio, with very little preparation.
"We went into Ardent. We got everybody on the floor, all in one big room," Jungklas remembers. "I'd run the song once, and then we'd go. Let it bleed — sonically there's a lot of bleed. But emotionally it was the perfect way to jump in. You can hear people — and feel people — trying to carve out their place in the track, reacting off me and reacting off each other. And, of course, all these players are adept enough to pull that off."
"This is the great thing about Memphis," says Powell, who produced, engineered, and mixed the record. "Rob would play it through once and everyone had a little legal pad to jot down [charts] — intro, verse, chorus, whatever. At one point, I looked at Steve [Selvidge's] notepad and it had a picture of a cow or something. He didn't even write down the chords. These guys were just listening to each other."