With his 12th album in 18 years, Jimbo Mathus continues his deliberate shift from the fervent blues that inspired him early on and closer towards Americana.
With Blue Healer, his 12th album in 18 years, Jimbo Mathus continues his deliberate shift from the fervent blues that inspired him early on and closer towards the sound of all-encompassing Americana. Combining some frayed edges and a tattered persona for the free-spirited swing and sway that marked his early output with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the new album rocks, rambles and plows through the swampy backwaters of the Mississippi delta, the region where Mathus was raised under the influence of a talented musical family. The family genes still hold sway, and here they’re more evident than ever.
Rather than proffer a simple set of songs, Mathus has fashioned a fanciful narrative that attempts to bind the effort together. The supposed Blue Healer at the center of the story is presented as the mythological figure that makes its belated appearance three songs in. It shows up, aptly enough, on the title tune, its dense, somewhat unnerving melody reflecting the lysergic nature of the encounter. From there the story unfolds, in Mathus’ words, about “a man in a southern landscape who is swept insanely apart by internal and external winds. He digs deeper and deeper into the very fabric of his reality, experiencing love and lust, despair, hope and sheer animal exhilaration on levels few ever do. He is tested in every way imaginable and achieves a sort of enlightenment (and) gains power and understanding of life’s mysteries. Yet questions remain. He wonders if the struggle was worth it, or even real. Is he madman or sage? Con man or honest counsel? Is this autobiographical or fictional? Only the Blue Healer knows the answer to the great cosmic heebie-jeebies.”
Hmmm. If that sounds at all intriguing, suffice it to say the music does well by the premise. “Shoot Out the Lights”, “Ready to Run”, “Save It for the Highway”, “Bootheel Witch”, and “Waiting on the Other Shoe to Fall” rock with the same abandon that once inspired Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the Rolling Stones and Steve Earle and the Dukes, adding a swagger and insurgence in the process. After a while though, the theme begins to matter less than the music itself, which remains captivating and compelling throughout. Mathus’ southern roots never linger very far below the surface, and on songs such as “Mama Please”, “Love and Affection” and “Old Earl”, there’s more than a hint of a tipsy traditional quality that sounds so authentic it could could have been mined with a genuine sass and spirit.
Clearly then, Mathus has created an album that holds together well, and if the concept isn’t always clear, the evocative quality that surrounds it clearly is. Those down home designs never stray far from the surface, giving these dozen songs a well-tended distinction. With Blue Healer Mathus comes into his own as an artist who is more than capable of shining the spotlight on his true source of inspiration: his strong and impenetrable southern roots.