The last time that Justin Broadrick booked a tour of the United States, he never got on the plane: In April 2002, the British singer-guitarist bailed on the trip at the last minute, citing stress. His decision led not only to short-term financial ruin but also to the breakup of Godflesh, the industrial-tinged metal act that he formed in the late '80s. Godflesh influenced a wide swath of bands, including Sebadoh, which played folksy indie rock with the occasional brown-note tuning, and Korn, which hybridized electronic music and metal into a mega-selling formula. Godflesh was hardly the first band of Broadrick's to alter the sound of modern rock. In 1987, while still in his teens, he and two of his Birmingham buddies made heavy-metal history with Scum, Napalm Death's fast, fatalistic debut album. That record informed much of the extreme metal that followed, but it's a heritage that Broadrick's latest group, Jesu, does little to embrace.
Broadrick's new sound doesn't lack for heaviness, but metal is no longer prominent. Oddly enough, the music is foregrounded with the kind of mopey-yet-majestic melodies that are most commonly associated with Britpop. On Conqueror, its second and more tuneful full-length, Jesu is about as menacing as the heaviest of the early-'90s shoegazer acts like Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine. Which is to say, not very menacing at all. (A colleague calls the band "metalgaze," which does a pretty good job of conveying the breadth of Jesu's aesthetic.) The band, which includes bassist Diarmuid Dalton and drummer Ted Parsons, typically begins each track with a no-frills foundation of low-end riffing and bricklayer beats. Broadrick then tops it off with tiers of chiming guitars, echoing keyboards and vocals that belie the brutality of his past work.
If singing is what separates metal from everything else, then Jesu clearly belongs in the latter camp. Broadrick often sounds as if he just woke up from a long, pleasant nap. As one might expect from a sleepyhead, he never raises his voice any louder than he has to--the guy just oozes mellowness. The first sound out of his mouth on Conqueror's title track is not a lyric but a wordless coo. It could easily be mistaken for a flute or some other soft-toned instrument, and his words, too, are sometimes used for textural effect. Broadrick's mantra at the end of "Weightless & Horizontal"--try not to lose yourself--both resembles and bleeds into the track's electronic loops, becoming just another layer of the song's intoxicatingly blissful tone.
Much of Conqueror hints at Broadrick's background in psychedelia. Broadrick was born at the height of the hippie era and lived, as a child, in a commune. His parents were serious music fans, and traces of their preferences--his stepfather listened to Pink Floyd, Can and Jimi Hendrix--are now audible in his songs. On "Conqueror," one of the most euphoric pairings of music and lyrics in the Jesu catalog, Broadrick sings of the colors that we saw and the trails that they made, and he's just as full of incense and peppermints on the placid "Mother Earth." Singing over a flower-power chord progression, Broadrick implores the title character to shine down and take the pain away. That's quite a departure from Godflesh, a band that once wrote lyrics such as screw you and your world and life is death.
It's no surprise that Broadrick, who's 37, is no longer the angry young dude who once made records such as Slavestate and Streetcleaner: Angst tends to burn out over time. But life can't be all that great if you're singing about self-medication into your late 30s. Broadrick told Pitchfork that Conqueror is about his attempt to overcome his anxiety-ridden past. "I've always considered myself an extremely fearful person," Broadrick said, and there's a sense of this struggle on "Medicine," a slow-burning track that recalls the glacial tempos of Parsons' old band, Swans. Even though the singer insists that the medicine is all we need, he also acknowledges that the drugs keep him away and hidden. We can only see the sunset, he sings. We can never see the sunrise.
Everything about Jesu--from its music to its lyrics to Conqueror's wintry cover art--seems to reflect Broadrick's obsession with both joy and pain. That feeling is most explicit on "Old Year," the new album's slowest and most oppressive offering. The hooky yet grim music harks back to Broadrick's older sound. The lyrics, on the other hand, are the disc's most hopeful. Broadrick directs his comments at a loved one who is waiting and hating, consumed with negative energy. Now you're stuck in our old year, he sings in a West Midlands drawl, but I believe in the new year. Like many rock lyrics, the couplet doesn't look so hot on paper. But Jesu's charm is that its music is simple enough that small vocal gestures take on a greater meaning. Coming from Broadrick, the rebuke has the impact of a catchphrase: It's the sort of lyric a less humble band might print on the front of a tour T-shirt.
Broadrick closes the new album with yet another lyric about belief. "Stanlow," a stunning pop number in which he sings about all the ghosts that haunt us, closes with a chorus that asks a question: Why believe yourself? The lyric sheet, however, lacks the question mark, as do Broadrick's vocals. There's nothing interrogative about the way he delivers the words--he sings why as if he's singing "ahhh," making the next two words sound more like a request. Memo to self: Believe. It's an appropriate sentiment for a guy who had to cancel the first shows of his current tour--his first planned trip to America since the one that ended Godflesh--due to visa problems. Whether he makes the rest of the tour is beside the point. What's important is that this time, he's trying.
This article first appeared in Washington City Paper.: Jesu and Zozobra open for Isis, Sunday, April 1, $15, doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Big Easy, 416 S. 9th St., 208-367-1212, www.bigeasyconcerts.com, www.ticketweb.com.