The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016â€™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 arenâ€™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; heâ€™s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. Thereâ€™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 â€œReally Hurt Someoneâ€ is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkinsâ€™ â€œI Put a Spell on You.â€ The drifting piano and backing chorale of â€œBeen Unravellingâ€ 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 â€œSunk a Little Loa,â€ swampy electric blues for â€œAlligator Fish,â€ trad-jazz for the story song â€œJack Told the Devil,â€ boozy C&W on â€œSouth of Laredo,â€ and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrixâ€™s â€œAngelâ€ on â€œSunken Road.â€
The albumâ€™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 whatâ€™s said by not saying too much. â€œNever Know Till Itâ€™s Goneâ€ 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. Carterâ€™s â€œGive Me the Roses,â€ offers an insight illuminated so clearly as to belie its intellectual depth. The latter is emblematic of the albumâ€™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. [Â©2019 Hyperbolium]