Just to read the titles of James Jackson Toth’s recent output — Born Bad, Hard Knox, and now Death Seat — is to get a pretty clear sense of where he’s coming from. He had a major-label deal go sour, had a band quit on him mid-tour, and got himself arrested — nearly all at the same time. So you’d forgive the main man behind Wooden Wand for sounding a little bitter. Born Bad, a collection of demos reportedly rejected by Rykodisc, surely reflects that. But the Hard Knox collection, culled from tracks recorded between 2002 and 2007, took a longer view on Toth’s work, and reminded us of the strength of his work, even as he’s shifted over the years from folk outlier to dusty, countrified troubadour.
As a next step, though, Death Seat comes off as nothing so depressing or self-destructive as its title implies. Now comfortably set up with a deal at Michael Gira’s Young God label, Toth has found a second chance for his career, and that new burst of life comes out in this impressive set. Of course, he hasn’t left his moody folk behind for sunbursts of joy just yet, but there’s a liveliness to these songs, even as they trudge through the rutted out roads of folk and country music.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Death Seat is how Toth seems to have finally struck the perfect balance between raw nerve and shaped experience. We can tell by his career troubles that he has been through plenty tough spots, and he renders those dark moments here with a well-considered honesty. There’s no shapeless anger, no biting wrath, but neither is there a stumbling need to convince us of his narrator’s authority. These songs may not all be about him directly, but he delivers them that way, not with a but-this-really-happened insistency, but rather with careful shifts in tone and a surgical eye for detail.
Take the shuffling opener “Sleepwalking After Midnight”. “This is sleepwalking time, everybody is stumbling around,” Toth sings at the outset, and in one line he’s set up the bleary-eyed, wandering feel of the whole record. As if that weren’t enough, he follows it up with mention of a “watercolor sun”, shifting an image of warmth and hope into something not quite real. They can imagine the daylight on their skin, these sleepwalkers, but damned if they can actually feel it.
Death Seat gets heavy, no doubt. These songs are all hollow acoustics and creaking atmosphere — a grinding guitar here, a lap-steel there, reverb-soaked vocals, etc. — and Toth’s drained delivery can sap you of your own energy as you go. To get bogged down in the surface feeling of this record, though, is to miss how darkly funny it can be, and how Toth can give away brief, touching moments of hope. You can hear the wry grin in his voice when he sings, “I made you, Baby, I made you out of clay / Now who you gonna believe?” The absurd claim at ownership, the clutching grasp for authority, is just as troubling as it is funny. “I Wanna Make a Difference”, with its stab at any kind of agency — helpful or destructive — has the same mix of sharp wit and pathos. The title track reminds us that “There’s no Jesus Christ in the death seat this ride”, which is both an image Tom Waits would cackle at and an oddly touching statement considering what we know Toth’s been through.
Despite his slow but sure move to more straightforward song structures, Toth’s still as smartly elusive as ever on Death Seat, and the tone recalls his best work on the 2005 record Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg. Now, though, Toth seems to have much more control. He’s pulled from different pieces of his past, both personal and musical — see the progression of Hard Knox for evidence — and had honed them into his most subtly volatile collection yet. The deathly feel may ring familiar to fans of Toth’s work, but the peccadilloes contained within that — the startling images, the laugh-out-loud lines, the quick turns in mood and tone — are what make this album perhaps his strongest work yet.
Between songs on Live at the Old Quarter, Townes Van Zandt apologizes about the turned-off air-conditioner, and he tells cheesy, rauchy jokes before leaning into his next bit of crushingly sad country music. If, in your mind, you could take those two poles of Van Zandt and mash them together into something thornier, some brilliant mix of melancholy and humor, of musician as both harbinger of hard times and hawker of glimmers of hope — then you’ll have an idea what Death Seat sounds like.