In preparation for this review, I reacquainted myself with Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter’s previous release, 2004’s Oh My Girl, as I drove up a dreary, snow-swept highway corridor just as the sun was coming up. It was perfect. That record, Sykes’s second, was substantial if monochromatic, the band spinning endless variations on languid, frostbit country. And so I felt the same as I did when it was first released, impressed but overwhelmed by the pervasive gloom. Not so with Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls of the Soul, which maintains the power and conviction of its predecessor while expanding the band’s slow-country sound to incorporate driving rock, hushed log-cabin folk and everything in between. Still evoking desolate plains and the more desperate corners of Americana, Like, Love, Lust is nonetheless an exciting, invigorating listen, vaulting Sykes and crew further ahead of the progressive-country field.
The late-night, whispered opener, “Eisenhower Moon” would appear to pick up where Oh My Girl left off—at least in terms of its humble, stripped down arrangement. But where that record relied almost exclusively on Phil Wandscher’s narcotic guitar leads for atmosphere, Like, Love, Lust brings changes it up on almost every track. “Eisenhower Moon” utilizes a mournful harmonica and a few piano chords to construct a mood behind Sykes’s distinctive voice. And what a voice—it can’t help but be the focus regardless of what musical setting accompanies, a haunting wood-grained rasp that sounds forever as if it’s wafting through beaded curtains or from a patch of soft, sacred earth. “Tell me what you need to see/ Half sadness and half fury,” she sings, identifying two emotional elements seemingly inseparable from her voice. On “LLL”, she booms her voice over a stuttering rock rhythm, echoes trailing off into the shadows. The band stomps with Crazy Horse bluster, then reins it in while a ghostly, cooing chorus of female harmonies drifts by. The song, like the album its title abbreviates, is full of lovingly and thoughtfully constructed twists and turns.
“You Might Walk Away” is a definite twist: a poppy, hand-clap and sound-effect laden tune, an epicurean counterpart to the stoicism of “Winter Hunter” and “Tell the Boys”. “At the reservoir following the narrow path of light/ What keeps us coming back for more is always out of sight,” Sykes sings brightly of a rainy hike in the woods, and asking “Don’t you wish that someone wanted you that way today?” It’s not the album’s strongest song, but its spirited jauntiness keeps the record moving and unpredictable, providing needed contrast with more familiar Sykesian material like “Spectral Beings”. That song is populated by great celestial chorused sighs, cellos and pedal steel stretched like snow clouds across the sky, its powers more likely to be felt on an album of diverse company. Sykes’s voice, again just a wisp above susurration, cuts through with authority, “The tender part of the hologram/ The lights went off/ Came on again.” The song is not only about a séance, it is a séance—its reverent gasps and transcendentalism all pushing towards the question, “Where is the one I’ve loved so long?”, imbuing that simple question with palpable emotion.
But just as “Spectral Beings” fades into the ether, another uncharacteristic song sashays onto the stage as counterpoint, this time the clomping, swaggering “How Will We Know?” The song borrows a bit of the same philosophical musing, a few breathy sighs, but adds a whole lot of racket, from organ to jingling bells, to the sassy twang of bent guitar strings. “Aftermath” is a watery lament whose jazzy, creative chord changes wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Lambchop’s Is a Woman. “It’s better not to give yourself away/ Away too soon…,” Sykes offers before a tide of horns washes in. But just as soon as the brass signals the barest hint of climax, the song is over, becoming a strange, hungover interlude before the tangled guitar figure of the uptempo “Station Grey”. It’s hard to resist the temptation of writing about every song on Like, Love, Lust, as there is zero dead weight—no song feels out of place or redundant. It’s clear early on that the record is something special. Like Trace, Being There, and Heartbreaker before it, Like, Love, Lust & The Open Halls of the Soul is the result of its creators ramping up their game, taking on a variety of styles to deliver, in the end, their singular artistic declaration to hopefully stick around for a long, long time.