Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Inside the Walls of Heaven’s Jail

Dirty Shoes takes a look at the new album from New York boozers, Heaven's Jail.
By    May 18, 2016

heaven's jail

Douglas Martin’s ready for the next great bar band.

If you’re going to form a rock band that explores the sacred and the profane, you’d do much worse than to name your band Heaven’s Jail. The New York band has been brooding with a subtle sense of humor for the bulk of the decade, starting out as spiritual successors to Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers-era the National (The Heaven’s Jail Band, Angelmaker) before sliding into a more somber, smoldering vibe on Ace Called Zero, perfect for those of us who listened to too much Jesse Sykes in 2004.

On Widow’s Work, corners of the album are marked with faint sunlight, a refreshing illumination and scalding glare in equal measure. The more rousing tunes on the album come across as Tom Petty by way of latter-day Guided by Voices, and peppered with dark and sometimes unsettling imagery. The best rock and roll music has a lot of subtext beneath its exterior. Widow’s Work fits this template, augmenting their sidewinding solos with allusions to sex workers, con artists who milk scapegoats, runaway circus performers, and women who like cowboys, “the kind who sleep in their clothes,” huddled underneath a windowsill and strung out on prescription drugs.

Much like the aforementioned acts, Francesco Ferorelli’s lyrics are preoccupied with sex and death, the gold standard for when you’re tired of boilerplate love songs. There’s also a historical context involved, with references to Hangman Jack in both the opening song and the titular penultimate track, with Ferorelli wondering the things we all wonder about strangers from time to time: “Do you kiss your kids? Do you love your wife?”

On “Cleopatra,” Ferorelli imagines a heartsick affair with the pharaoh of Hellenistic Egypt, caked in “drag queen makeup,” with fears of death quaking in her bones. Ferorelli sings: “And when they’re guessing what’s the hardest part/You’ll say you had his child but I had your heart.” The kicker is that they both know she won’t succumb to the love bug in the affair, registering the faint heartbreak of encroaching another relationship and knowing you’re the one it’s not going to end happily ever after for.

Ferorelli’s personal touch to personae throughout history gives his novelistic songwriting and eye for detail an emotional edge, subverting what we’ve come to know through history books and documentaries and treating these larger than life figures like the human beings they were at one point in their lives, even when the stories skew toward historical fiction. Wouldn’t you like to know what it’s like to jump the fence at Cleopatra and Marc Antony’s home?

The alt-country balladry of “Paris TX/Paris FR” features some of Ferorelli’s best songwriting and highlights the aforementioned fixation on the intersection between sex and death. We get images of passing out in the bushes in front of rich men’s houses and making love on the sand of rich women’s land, and a character with bloodshot eyes intoning, “I think man invented drinking ‘cause God invented dying.” Still, in between the borders of Paris, TX and Paris, France is where the people in the song get drunk and dance, finding those cracks of sunlight within the darkness.