Joan of Arc has been around for a while now. The Chicago based band celebrates over 20 years of making music by sharing historic, live recordings from 1996-2018 in The Free Will Set You Truth. Like any historic recording the importance of it isn’t necessarily tied to its recording quality or listenability. This album is an earful to listen through. For better or worse, listening to the album feels like you were in the room for the recording of many of the tracks.
Nostalgia can be a strong feeling. We tend to filter out the bad and focus on only the good parts that we can remember. All it takes to destroy this mirage, though, is dusting off your old Nintendo 64 that you had fun playing once when you were six. The rose-colored glasses fall off real quick. Some things are better left remembered rather than re-experienced.
This brings us to The Free Will Set You Truth. The music evokes a feeling of an intimate show between band and listener. That is about the point where the album falls apart. The lo-fi recording of the tracks is at times extremely lo-fi. In a track like “Queasy Lynn,” the lo-fi recording ends up taking away from the enjoyment of listening to the song. In other tracks, like “Please Don’t Let My Job Make Me Lame (by Red Blue Yellow)” the recording makes the song borderline unlistenable.
The track list is a wild array of experimental, borderline atonal songs. Some sound like they are just chords played together without a melody, while others switch beats, tempos, and direction throughout their runtime. Coupled with crowd noises in the background, the songs are a jolt to your ears. It’s difficult to find a narrative in the tracks beyond the album being an array of snapshots of the band’s sound in different times. The lack of cohesiveness combined with the poor recording quality makes this album a chore to listen through. Adding to the difficulty of listening through the album is confusion about what to do when listening to it. Between the recording quality and changes in tone, it is hard to lose yourself in the music. But, between the changes in tone and the vocals, it’s hard to imagine being moved to the music either.
The thesis of The Free Will Set You Truth may come towards the end of the album. When “Tiny Baby” begins with the lyrics “the five of us are applauding the five of you,” it is easier to see the mission and scope of the album. It is for the fans and the band, who want to remember and relive their history. There’s a reason why historical recordings don’t chart, but it doesn’t mean that they weren’t important or that they didn’t mean anything. This album is a reminder of the meaningfulness of producing something because you thought it was important.