Jeremy Messersmith has a voice so gentle that it makes Elliott Smith sound like Tom Waits. It’s the kind of voice that’s made for lullabies, and I once saw Messersmith use it to charm a room full of toddlers and their mothers. If you don’t pay close attention, you might let this voice lull you into thinking everything he sings is a simple love song. But even his love songs aren’t simple: listen to “Beautiful Children,” where the woman he secretly loves tells him about her new boyfriend, and he says, “I hope he loves you/ If he doesn’t, at least you’ll have beautiful children.”
Since his debut in 2006, Minneapolis-based Messersmith has always been good, but last year he took a giant leap forward with The Reluctant Graveyard, 11 songs about death. There are songs about organ donation, songs about brutally murdered women, songs about ghosts thinking they wasted their lives. His earlier work was made up mostly of guitar with some light electronic backup, but Graveyard has full arrangements — string quartets, full band, backup singers. Messersmith has said he was trying to do something like Pet Sounds with a fraction of the Beach Boys’ budget, and he almost succeeds.
Despite its macabre subject matter, Graveyard sounds as uplifting and beautiful as “God Only Knows.” Part of the reason for this is, again, Messersmith’s voice. In “Violet,” he sings, “Streaks of earth matted in her hair,” but that gentle voice makes you think it’s a love song. When he sings, “Get up!/ Come on and get up, Violet!” he sounds so kind that you might forget that Violet will never get up again.
Paper Bird and Michael McGraw also perform.
JEREMY MESSERSMITH: Soda Bar, Monday, July 18, 9 p.m. 619-255-7224. $7.