Review: One Foot In The Clay by Joel McKerrow (CD)

Review by Amanda Anastasi

In a Melbourne spoken word scene full of wits, comics and venting raging voices, Joel McKerrow is quite simply a shining light.  Part orator, part story-teller; part humanitarian but always a poet, McKerrow has produced something special with One Foot In The Clay.

One perfect, memorable image is worth writing a whole book for, and the metaphor of ‘the cracked table’ in McKerrow’s opening track Table is certainly one of these. Here he begins with his earliest childhood memories and an experience we can all deeply relate to: our parents being as gods to our younger selves, and their inevitable fall in our perception. 

In Confession Part 1 (there are three parts), he opens with I am a white man and I am a Christian. In these pieces, McKerrow allows himself the role of spokesperson, apologizing for the wrongs done by others of his kind.  My first thought was that perhaps he takes too much upon himself! However, when the apology felt as though it were directed to my kind in Confessions Part 3, when he apologizes to women on behalf of all men, I better understood his intent – consider all the apologies that should be made and are not. It is clear that this is a man with a deep awareness of the dysfunction and suffering around him, and his contribution to both the problem and the solution.

By the second track, we also know that this is a poet whose Christianity is a strong part of his identity. It would be remiss of me to mention that this reviewer embraces the idea of man inventing God, rather than the other way around. Therefore I confess my initial thought was please let this not be a Christian album! The more I listened, the more I realized that McKerrow rises far above any of the labels he has placed upon himself. In fact, it seems that he places them for the purpose of slowly dismantling them. All misgivings in this regard are dispelled, ironically, in the third track entitled God. God, rid me of God! he proclaims, in frustration at his own tendency to define God.

Dweller is by far my track of choice. It is a poem of great richness that captures the essence of the creative state, and the hope and wonder that we share together as artists.  He opens with one of many memorable, beautiful lines: I am an artist and a pilgrim on the threshold.  Poet captures the artist’s hopeful ambition and the desire to create and remake oneself.

Search features vocals by Heidi Wadell, who also plays guitar on the album.  Meena Shamaly’s music throughout the album is the perfect compliment to Joel’s soaring words.  In Men the bass cello strings fit the subject matter, and the simple use of acoustic guitar in Girl works well.  Music is used the most powerfully in Exile, as well as in Land with the beautiful didgeridoo playing of Luke Hawkins.  This poem on the subject of western intrusion on indigenous Australia (a subject I have visited frequently in my own poetry), has a similar apologetic approach as the Confession poems.

There is a lilting, syncopation to McKerrow’s voice, usually coupled with a crescendo, at the climactic point of the poem.  There is a clear rap-inspired, musical element to his performance style (particularly evident in tracks like Boomsha ).  For me, Joel’s finest moments are when his voice is quiet and slow and at its most relaxed and natural rhythmically.  At all times, though, he knows when to turn the volume up and when to turn it down again.

Another stand-out poem well worth mentioning is Stand.  This is McKerrow’s I Had A Dream – a powerful, inspiring piece of oratory.  You expect to hear roaring applause at the end of it.  There is a touching vulnerability in the utterance I’m frightened, would you come, take a stand and hold my hand? toward the end of the poem.  There is the acknowledgement that it is a scary thing to rebel, to oppose and to stand up for one’s convictions, but it is a poem that aims to give the listener the courage to do it.

In the closing track of the album, Epilogue, Joel speaks on behalf of humanity.  If  not done well, this sort of large gesture can come across contrived or overly ambitious.  Mercifully, Joel does it well.  One feels the Christian sensibility here – the need to confess sins and seek absolution.  So much more than this though, it demonstrates a courage to tackle the large issues, and the skill to do so and create something simultaneously and intensely personal.  An all-encompassing compassion and the determination to be better seeps from Joel McKerrow’s every word and inflection of his voice.  His sincerity is palpable and this is where the power of his words lie.

Keep listening to Track 16 because Joel surprises as with a light fun poem that can only be described as his ‘ranga’ poem.  Here he shows off his ability to, well, talk as fast as humanly possible!  You wish you were me, he says a few times.  It’s true: we all secretly wish we were redheads but, most of all, we wish we had written some of those lines.  I will conclude by quoting a line from his poem Dweller.  Joel McKerrow has one hand earth bound, and one reaching high to the sky.  He takes us with him and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Joel McKerrow’s debut spoken word album One Foot In The Clay and his book Beyond Rhetoric: Writings In The Tradition of Kahlil Gibran are available for purchase on his website Following the Please Resist Me Tour with Luka Lesson and Alia Gabres, Joel now embarks on his One Foot In The Clay launch tour.

Amanda Anastasi is a Melbourne page and performance poet with a Bachelor of Professional Writing and Literature from Deakin University.  She is a two-time winner of the Williamstown Literary Festival’s Seagull Poetry Prize and a recipient of the 2011 Laura Literary Award’s C.J. Dennis Poetry Award.  This year she is a judge in the Ada Cambridge Poetry Prize and is working on her first collection 2012 and other poems.

Amanda Anastasi