Gregory Alan Isakov's 'Evening Machines' Is a Moody, Intoxicating Masterpiece

Photo: Rebecca Caridad / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Colorado singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov releases his fourth full-length album, Evening Machines, and it's a slow-burning beauty.

Evening Machines
Gregory Alan Isakov


5 October 2018

"I'd work really hard into the night," says Gregory Alan Isakov, in the press release for his new album." A lot of times I would find myself in the light of all these VU meters and the tape machine glow, so that's where the title came from." Evening Machines, indeed. It's easy to parse out the literal meaning behind such a title, but it's impossible to deny that the title also seems to convey the overall mood behind the finished product. This is an album that could have only been made at night. It's dark, brooding, and full of echoes and mystery.

Isakov's fourth full-length album and his first in five years, Evening Machines was recorded at his converted barn studio in Boulder County, Colorado. It's on this property where he also operates a three-acre farm, selling vegetable seeds and growing various market crops. That's right, Gregory Alan Isakov is not only a singer-songwriter, he's also a full-time farmer. Lots of artists steeped in folk or Americana talk the talk – Isakov walks the walk.

Not that you need to grow corn to write a good song. But the rural atmosphere Isakov immerses himself in seems to work wonders in creating an organic, no-bullshit, anti-rock star album. "I'm a ghost of you / You're a ghost of me / A birds-eye view of San Luis," he sings in the quiet, deliberately paced "San Luis".

Isakov played a lot of the album's instruments himself, but a good deal of musicians accompany him here and there, adding layers of analog keyboards, rustic strings, and ethereal harmony vocals. Nick Forster's pedal steel on "Was I Just Another One" meshes beautifully with the dramatic string and choral arrangements, creating a near-cinematic experience. On "Caves", a heavy, full-band sound is accented by cavernous, reverb-drenched sound design, with the mysterious lyrics and its elusive characters adding to the Southern Gothic aura. "I used to love caves," Isakov sings. "Stumble out into that pink sky / Remember that bright hollow moon / It showed our insides on our outsides."

While Evening Machines maintains a timeless, open feel – the sound of a future classic – timely subject matter creeps in from time to time. The opening track, "Berth" – co-written by Isakov's brother Ilan, and whittled down from its original 12-minute runtime to a more modest five – addresses the issue of immigration. Over a lush, languid waltz, Isakov -- a native of South Africa who emigrated with his family to the U.S. as a young child – sings of arriving at his new home in poetic, measured tones: "New York lady, holding in her heavy hand / Sacred lantern, guiding dawn / Quit all that looking back / I quit all of that."

One of the album's more musically sparse songs is "Chemicals", guided primarily by the ever-present acoustic guitar as other instruments fall soberly in place. Despite some occasional intoxicating falsetto and other unique touches, "Chemicals" sounds like Isakov's bid to make a somewhat standard, traditional indie folk song. But he seems too good for that kind of generic style and eventually rises above it. "Dark Dark Dark" follows along those same lines, albeit in a more percussive, singalong style.

Listening to Evening Machines -- easily one of the best albums I've heard so far this year -- you get the impression that Isakov is Josh Ritter's eccentric cousin, and their styles are comparable (Isakov has toured with Ritter in the past). They certainly share a lot of the same qualities, both in their musical and lyrical styles. Underneath the rich, unique production technique is a master songwriter. On the epic, closing ballad, "Wings in All Black", Isakov sings: "She turns to water, she goes slipping through the cracks / And all that you gave her, you'll never win back / You circled the sun, you wore your wings in all black." That's positively Dylanesque. Not bad for a Colorado farmer.






Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.