Picture a pond on a calm day. The surface is almost perfectly smooth, with the sky beautifully reflected. But you know, although you cannot see, that below the surface, the pond is teeming with life and activity. The music of Gregory Alan Isakov is like that. What you hear is the texture of the surface going through calm gradual changes. It sounds dense at times, but simple. But there are many parts going on underneath. This is mostly acoustic music, but layered, and artfully mixed. Songs start with one or two instruments and others join in in groups, but the ear hears a texture that builds, sometimes flags and rebuilds, and then subsides at the end. The effect is quietly dramatic, and serves the songs well.
The lyrics are the kind that start arguments. Isakov leaves a lot of room for the listener’s interpretation, and two people may not hear the same thing at all. But Isakov makes you care enough that the argument is worth having. What I hear is a collection of tales of love and heartbreak. Isakov sings these songs with quiet intensity. His voice is a low tenor with just the hint of a catch. Sometimes, he alters his voice with electronic effects; that is a technique that can easily turn me off, but here it is done tastefully.
The album opens with Dandelion Wine. The narrator has mowed lawns for gas money so he can go see his love. That’s the literal idea of the song, but it seems to me that there is also a metaphorical meaning; Isakov is inviting us to join him on a trip through the varieties of love. Sometimes, this is expressed not by a “relationship song”, but simply through a portrait of a woman. Evelyn presents a woman who pumps gas on the graveyard shift, and tells of the people she encounters. The next song, Virginia May, presents a woman as an object of inspiration. But more often, the songs here are snapshots of the state of a relationship. In Words, a couple are separated by distance, and the narrator is letting her know how much he misses her. Big Black Car is more ambiguous, but here the relationship appears to have ended, and the narrator relates his fond memories of how it felt when they were together.
In expressing all of this, Isakov completely avoids cliches. His metaphors are completely new to me, and very affective. One big inspiration becomes clear at the end of the album. The last track, and the only cover, is One of Us Cannot Be Wrong by Leonard Cohen. Personally, I find that I tend to enjoy Cohen’s songs more when other people perform them, and this is no exception.
So Gregory Alan Isakov has delivered an album of songs that is both musically and lyrically fascinating. This Empty Northern Hemisphere is one that I am sure will reward repeated listens, revealing new layers each time.
Gregory Alan Isakov: Big Black Car
Gregory Alan Isakov: Words