Evolve or become stagnant. James “Jimbo” Mathus has never appeared to be content letting his musical interests remain confined within one particular genre or another. Unlike his former Squirrel Nut Zipper bandmate Andrew Bird, who initially appeared to be a stylistic chameleon of sorts with the arrival of his exceptional 2001 album The Swimming Hour, Mathus has continued to delve in and out of one genre or another throughout the years, refusing to stagnate creatively. His ninth album, recorded with the Tri-State Coalition, eschews the swing revival jazz of his breakout band, the 19th century deep roots music of the South Memphis String Band, and leaves the back porch delta blues of his debut solo album Play Songs for Rosetta temporarily behind him. Building on the strength of last year’s stellar White Buffalo, the songs of Dark Night of the Soul are as equally impressive as anything the 47-year-old Mathus has delivered before, if not more so.
The album was recorded near his home in Taylor, Mississippi at Dial Back Sound Studios, owned and operated by Bruce Watson, the label manager at Fat Possum Records. According to the press release, the relaxed environment of the studio proved to be the perfect catalyst for inspiring his songwriting, a place where he could let the material organically evolve with little outside pressure. Mathus laid down some 40 tracks with engineer/instrumentalist Bronson Tew, while Watson served as an editor of sorts, whittling them down to 12, favoring the songs with a darker more personal subject matter. With the exception of the woozy, listless penultimate song “Medicine”, this perfectly constructed record never overstays its welcome during it’s quick 37-minute running time.
The opening whiskey-soaked, salvation-themed title track sets the mood for the entire affair, with its Bob Seger-esque piano and wall of electric guitars. What was only hinted at on previous releases is fully explored on Mathus’s ninth record and the fiery impact resonates long after the final track “Butcher Bird” has ended. From the gritty, Southern country rock explored in Confederate Buddha and White Buffalo, to the ‘60s roadhouse, garage rock found on his Blue Light EP, Dark Night of the Soul sees Mathus fully surrendering to his rock and roll impulses. To quote Jimbo, “The intensity you’re hearing on this album is the spirit of a band that is putting its shit on the line.”
The late Robert Earl Reed’s “White Angel”, co-written with Mathus and taken from his 2011 album Carlene, has been treated to a gritty makeover. Any semblance to the Johnny Cash-like air of its predecessor has been removed and given a raw, incendiary overhaul. The ‘70s Southern rock-inflected “Rock and Roll Trash” resembles what a collaboration between the Black Crowes and Faces might have sounded like. “Burn the Ships” sounds like a cut off Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s live album Weld, with the guitar distortion cranked up to full volume. Reveling in unabashed sentimentality, “Shine Like a Diamond”, a love letter to Mathus’s wife, is a brassy, Van Morrison meets Tom Petty number, complete with grin-inducing “sha-la-la’s” tacked on the end.
Themes of salvation and redemption return with the album’s emotional centerpiece “Writing Spider”, as Jimbo reflects on his past, turning to faith for solutions. “Some say Jesus is the answer. It’s Jesus that can set you free. Well, I won’t dispute it or claim it. Ah it’s standing right in front of me. He took the blame for everything, even original sin. I took the blame so many times on all the trouble that I had back then. Take it easy on my mind… Nobody asked to be born, nobody asked to be here at all. I’m just a watching this writing spider, weave his story across my wall.” Like everything else on Dark Night of the Soul, the deceptively simplistic lyrics are refreshingly direct and unflinchingly honest.
Ever the consummate musical historian, Mathus’ vast wealth of knowledge flows throughout the veins of the album, yet unlike many of its predecessors, the rawness of the performances prevents anything from sounding calculated and overly-studied. A handful of the studio demos were so perfectly realized, that they remained untouched in their original form on the final release. It seems Bruce Watson wasn’t the only one with discerning taste, as two of those aforementioned demos turned out to be some of the album’s best moments. The second Robert Earl Reed collaboration, the rollicking “Tallahatchie”, is by far the most uplifting ode to drowning I’ve ever encountered and “Casey Caught the Cannonball” explores the legend of the famous locomotive engineer and recalls the Band’s “The Weight”, if it were rearranged with some killer pedal steel.
The final mesmerizing eulogy “Butcher Bird” seems a fitting closure to such a self-reflective album, one that explores a full spectrum of emotions ranging from utter despair to unbridled bliss. The title refers to the nickname of the Loggerhead Shrike, a small bird of prey with a large hooked bill that impales its supper on barbed-wire fences or thorns, in order to tear them apart and devour them. Mathus asks the bird, who one can assume represents life’s pain and suffering, to simply fly away. It’s a beautiful prayer of sorts, and a reminder that a gifted storyteller needs few words to convey the inner workings of his heart and mind. Dark Night of the Soul is yet another exceptional recording in the career of an ever-evolving artist who continues to surprise and always delivers the goods.