What sound does a burning soul make?
Kevin Gordon’s got a cool song on his latest album about an outsider artist named Joe Light, who drives a $500 car, has 10 kids to feed, and never has enough dough although his pictures sell for big money in the big city. The name Joe Light seems appropriate from a literary perspective. After all, art is about shadows and light. The title character is always light on cash. And the subjects of his artwork are light (as opposed to heavy) in that he doesn’t think about what he’s doing as much as create them out of thin air. Imagine my surprise to read Gordon’s blog that announced Gordon’s friend, the artist Joe Light, had died. Gordon’s tune told a true story.
The ability to craft songs that combine the real and surreal has always been one of Gordon’s strengths. The song “Joe Light” serves as good example of Gordon’s talent at making something true into the stuff of legend. Many critics note that Gordon graduated from the prestigious University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and presume his compositional capabilities derive from his academic training. As an Iowa City resident whose heard more than my share of poetry and prose writers attempt to be songwriters, I can attest to the fact that this is not the case. Gordon’s gift comes from a deeper place. Maybe his Louisiana upbringing is responsible. Gordon’s guitar playing sounds like it came out of the swamp. His strings seem to go chuggin’ and chompin’ like an alligator chasing after a shifty water rat. Or maybe it has nothing to do with either his training or his upbringing but just emerges from his soul.
There’s definitely something soulful about this Americana roots rocker. The songs express a yearning for unnamable essences that can only be alluded to. Gordon writes and sings of “drinking black coffee in the blazing sun”, that “if you were the river dreams were the fish”, and “every rose petal’s got a tale to tell”, plus many, many other lines that suggest the complex confusions and paradoxes of life. For example, the rose petals mentioned previously belong to “Flowers” (as the song is titled) tied to a wooden cross by the side of the road after a car crash. One woman puts the marker there to honor her husband, an upstanding preacher man killed by a drunk driver. The other woman does the same, but her husband was a hard working family man who started drinking after the local mill closed down. Both men were victims of circumstances. Both women have reason to question the fairness of life.
The sparse instrumentation reinforces the poignancy of the material. Mostly it’s Gordon singing and playing guitar joined by his friend and co-producer Joe McMahan on either guitar or Hammond organ, with a drummer and bass player creating the rhythms. Guitarist Bo Ramsey contributes to two cuts, the aforementioned “Joe Light” and “Flowers”. Ramsey keeps his fret work simple. He constructs a groove that allows Gordon, McMahan and company to branch out and build a song structure on.
Ten of the dozen songs here are Gordon originals. The album gets its title from the introductory cut. “Watching the Sun Go Down”. Gordon writes of the changes in the natural world come sunset that causes him to become reflective. Gordon doesn’t pontificate or get philosophical. Instead, he just offers up a few images like “black branches tangle a blue sky” or the more oblique “wrinkled face and a glass of rye” that don’t necessarily make rational sense, but still convey a deeper meaning. How a sunset resembles an old person drinking whiskey would take a lengthy explanation, but the art lies in not having to spell it out. Gordon lets the churning guitar music provide the commentary.
The two covers are Eddie Hinton’s Memphis soul stew, “Something Heavy” and Willie Dixon’s Chess Records classic “Crazy Mixed Up World”. These two tracks fit in well with Gordon’s material because of their bluesy feel and ambivalent take on living in the world. The narrators of both cuts express the desire to find something to give meaning to their lives. They feel lost and needy, but they are more confused than resentful. They want redemption that never seems to come. The fact that these old songs seem so modern offers a sad commentary on the contemporary world. Gordon’s renditions make this clear, and the fact that his newly created characters are faced with the same dilemmas is even sadder. But Gordon knows where deliverance can be found, and he delivers it to us. As Elvis Costello once put it so succinctly in a much different context, “Music is the sound salvation”. Hallelujah.