The most striking aspect of Texan Israel Nash’s sixth full-length album, Topaz, is just how big it sounds. With the help of Adrian Quesada of the Black Pumas, Nash created the album at his home studio, Plum Creek Sound, located 600 feet from his house in the Texas Hill Country out in the middle of nowhere. The songs capture the landscape’s barrenness in a manner reminiscent of 1970s Pink Floyd records or prog-rock of the 1980s where the vastness of the mind was recapitulated in the spaces between the musical notes—in this case, in service of cosmic country-rock. That allows the soaring guitar lines and driving horns to suggest the world may be vast, but so are the narrator’s thoughts and dreams.
Nash describes his heart as a canyon (“Canyonheart”). There is something strange about the metaphor, Sure a canyon is big, but it is empty, and Nash doesn’t mean he’s void of feeling but something more the opposite. His heart has the space to capture the immensity of it all. Or on another track, he sings that he experiences “every shade of blue”. Nash stresses the broadness of his emotional connections more than its depth. That keeps things on a somewhat cerebral level. The songs on Topaz bang around in one’s head more than one’s heart.
Nash’s lyrics capture the interior monologue of a man isolated by circumstances—as we all have been during the recent pandemic—struggling to understand one’s place in the world. While Nash keeps the details ambiguous, there are coded swipes at Donald Trump, the financial pressures on those trying to lead a rural life, and other social and political ills. Nash tries not to pit one side against the other but sees modern life as a game that can’t be won. “Dividing Lines” that separate us from seeing our commonality are itself the enemy.
The ten songs themselves tend to start with sparse arrangements that suggest the feeling of being alone. By the time a song is over, other instruments have joined in to harmonize and add depth and color to the proceedings. The results imply we’re all in this world together, even if we aren’t always aware of that. But that doesn’t mean the songs end happily. Misery may love company but being around other people isn’t the solution to all our problems. One can be “Down in the Country” even with family, neighbors, and friends. One can still feel alone in a crowd.
Musically, this album will appeal to fans of mid-1970s Neil Young and The Band during their more ragged than right periods. There are many times when Nash strains for a note and a purposeful carelessness to his playing. Nash sings about taking things slow on songs like “Southern Coasts” and “Stay”, and there is something unrushed about the proceedings. The human elements of the music are put front and center and are complemented by the pace.
According to myth, the gemstone topaz can improve one’s mental powers and even cure lunacy. Listening to this album may offer the same results by helping one chill and reflect. The expansive nature of the production allows the listener to get lost in the sound while Nash takes one on a conceptual trip inside his mind. It’s a journey worth taking.