Reading through Patrick James’ Genius notes to his new album Panosophy feels like trying to identify everyone on the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. He shouts out Elliott Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Morrissey. He references Dostoevsky, Murakami, and Shakespeare. His influences on one song alone include The Cure, Felt, Aztec Camera, Blueboy, Tiger Trap, Oasis, and Nirvana.
All of which may make this music seem dense and unlistenable, like some sort of heady prog nightmare. But James, who records as Maybe (a name inspired by a favorite girl-group song), makes it work. He cites his “Brian Wilson worship” a couple times, and this album indeed reflects Wilson’s ability to place really complex orchestrations in the context of tidy pop songs. Intricate string and piano arrangements reflect James’ classical piano training, landing somewhere between the Zombies and Fairport Convention with a side of Philip Glass.
Amidst the many, many influences, one crops up repeatedly: The Bible. For God’s sakes, one song is literally titled “Love Theme from ‘The Bible’.” Then there’s the album cover (Hans Memling’s 1400s painting The Last Judgment) and lyrics like this, from opening track “Wisp of Tow”:
the shepherd was happy, the rebel was not
they had each other and worship, and him, just free thought
though no beast is like man, so artistically cruel
so he soon joined in, grazing with his holy fools
and his struggle and science cannot be his own
just as man cannot live off of bread alone
he must suffer from sin, he must live off the grass
and he can only love neighbors when in the abstract
When asked about the albums biblical overtones, James said religion has always influenced him. “It’s really popular especially in my age group – teens and young adults – to be down on religion because of all the suffering it’s caused, or its irrationality, or what have you. But actually, I’ve always been a very spiritual person. I don’t have any ‘religion’, but I believe in a lot of superstitions about the universe and that kind of thing.”
The album title Pansophy also ties into that, a term he read in the book A History of God by Karen Armstrong. “It describes an idea that I’ve had for as long as I can remember,” he says. “It’s supposed to define a kind of all-knowing, all-encompassing force watching over everything that happens. Reading Armstrong’s book really explained to me how so many people come to believe in God and why it makes sense for them. And besides that, I’ve been digging into Bible stories and reading about Jesus’ life, looking at religious art, listening to liturgical music.”
You can certainly hear elements of liturgical music on the album, but various strains of world music come into play too. He references Bulgarian rhythms (“the compound 3+2+2+3+whatever dances are INSANE to watch people do on YouTube”) and various types of Mexican and Latin-American music, with bolero rhythms or mariachi horns.
“I first got into Latin music just by playing it in school band and at summer jazz programs, learning samba and bossa nova tunes,” he says. “I’ve been listening to more and more and more of it ever since, and I’m always trying to learn new beats – I’ve got styles from Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico down now. What I really love about it is the combination of the really dance-y rhythms that are so full of character – just the rhythm alone can be exciting or mysterious or sincere – with the direct and simple harmony that makes the songs so accessible. European/American music is sorely lacking rhythmically compared to Latin music”
All that may seem like a lot to parse, but against all odds the album is instantly accessible. The melodies are pleasant and poppy the first time you hear it, but offer enough layers to dig deeper into every time. Listen to the full album below, then download it at Bandcamp.