A strong sense of home fills Eilen Jewell’s latest record, Sundown Over Ghost Town. Much of that can be traced to the fact that she returned to her hometown of Boise, Idaho, to write and record the album, with all of the memories and impressions such a return can bring. However, Sundown also finds her drawing from observations she no doubt gathered over years of touring, seeing the fate and character of numerous hometowns.
So while Sundown Over Ghost Town is of a piece with Jewell’s past work — occupying a seemingly easygoing territory that’s equal parts rockabilly, noir, and country — it comes across as a much more personal work. It’s most apparent in “My Hometown”, which finds Jewell observing “if sweetness had a sound / it would sound like my hometown”, following it with details about sprinklers, “endless ice cream song”, and neighbors. She later counters that rosy picture with through-the-car-window observations of “Green Hills”, describing “sad towns too barren for ghosts” full of empty silos, old train “tracks like scars on your hand”, and “pointless picket fences”. “Needle & Thread” adopts a spry country lope as Jewell describes a place that’s “just one horse shy / of a one-horse town / this ain’t the first time it tried to burn itself down” with “seven bars, one church / heaven is no match for hell”. She brings it home with a chorus that might best capture the album’s conflicting views: “Home is the needle and thread / for the hole in the lifeboat that it put you in / and it leaves its mark all stamped with lead / in the lines that’ll grind inside your skin.”
Still, it can sometimes be hard to pin Jewell’s intentions down. “My Hometown” goes against type and its happy lyrics with a reverb-drenched sound that wouldn’t be out of place over the credits of a hard-boiled detective movie. In that case, it arguably implies that everything isn’t as it seems, but is that the intent? Or is it Jewell and band simply settling into a comfortable sound? Similarly, “Hallelujah Band” finds Jewell trailing off on the song’s central celebratory lyric, implying that she might not be as ecstatic or as hopeful as the lyrics indicate. That seems fitting more than problematic, though, since the album finds Jewell coming at her subject from so many different angles. Even “Rio Grande”, a showcase for soaring mariachi horns, finds Jewell singing of a place that brings her to tears despite its peace and serenity.
Fans of Jewell’s earlier work will find much to like here. As usual, her high-quality and poetic lyrics are supported by her crack band, anchored by Jerry Miller’s indispensable guitar playing. Whether he’s relaxing into a smooth nighttime vibe or tearing off some rockabilly-laced solos, it’s a pleasure to hear him play. Jewell’s earlier albums have all had their merits, but Sundown Over Ghost Town might be her most fully-realized effort yet.