Jimbo Mathus: Incinerator

The healer lays hands on himself

The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016’s Blue Healer is now turned inward, with a dramatic album that finds Mathus moving from guitar to piano, and enriching his musical brew with space. Space for the vocals and lyrics, and space for instrumental backings that aren’t exactly spare, but often stray from the thick gumbo of his earlier albums. He ranges easily and authoritatively through Americana, folk, country, R&B, rock and electric swamp, turning his lyrics inward to explore the underpinnings of his own artistic life. The songs often drift into being, as though Mathus is gathering his thoughts as he addresses the microphone; he’s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. There’s an immediacy in this approach that casts a new light on his earlier records, suggesting they may have been more of an outward manifestation of the internal truths he mines here.

Some of these personal revelations are delivered directly in the lyrics, but elsewhere, such as the title track, poetic images are rendered with expressive singing and backed by instrumentals that essay mood rather than narrative. The basic revelation of “Really Hurt Someone” is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” The drifting piano and backing chorale of “Been Unravelling” add a meditative counterpoint to a palpably lonely vocal – as if Joe Cocker was fronting the Friends-era Beach Boys. Mathus turns to an R&B groove for “Sunk a Little Loa,” swampy electric blues for “Alligator Fish,” trad-jazz for the story song “Jack Told the Devil,” boozy C&W on “South of Laredo,” and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on “Sunken Road.”

The album’s lyric sheet reveals how Mathus reduced his words to increase focus. The songs are typically three or four minutes in length, but with lyrics that may be only ten or twelve short lines. Instead of traditional verse/chorus, he lets emptiness have its say, highlighting what’s said by not saying too much. “Never Know Till It’s Gone” lays out its lament in eight lines, surrenders its sorrow and longing to an instrumental interlude, and repeats itself for good measure, and the closing cover of A.P. Carter’s “Give Me the Roses,” offers an insight illuminated so clearly as to belie its intellectual depth. The latter is emblematic of the album’s offer of deep, almost subconscious thoughts brought to the surface to be mulled over in the explicit light of day. This is a powerful new approach for Mathus, one that his fans will find both emotionally and intellectually captivating. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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