Some things are eternal. Beauty is one. Strangeness another. Brutality a third. The songs here reflect all of those, through the harshness and beauty of the natural world, the generosity and brutality of humankind.
Traditional music can feel too often like a costume party -- you see the surfaces, and those surfaces might be impeccably detailed, but you’re missing everything about the past that matters. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s music is deeply traditional, in the sense that it’s built from, and connects to, the music of the past. But it's no costume party.
His second album What In the Natural World continues the path outlined on his 2015 self-titled debut; taking old songs, familiar or not, and inhabiting them through his singing and acoustic guitar-playing. Fussell is of the South, growing up in Georgia, son of a folklorist, and living in Mississippi and now North Carolina. The songs he chooses to sing tilt toward the South, but not as much so as you might expect - What in the Natural World opens with a song associated with Duke Ellington (“Jump for Joy”), for example.
If “traditional” means understanding and caring about music from the past within a context -- caring about the people, stories, and human circumstances that the music came from -- the world certainly applies. At every step, Fussell seems fascinated by the ideas and worlds contained with these songs, and how those ideas are larger than any one time period. But if the word means trying to make your music sound like it’s old, then Fussell is in a different place.
There are a lot of words you can throw at Fussell’s music to try and describe the immediacy of it, and few of them will really lead to understanding. What in the Natural World is a huge step forward for Fussell when it comes to presence. Jake Xerxes Fussell was riveting for his cut-to-the-bone delivery of unfamiliar songs that struck achingly familiar chords within us. What in the Natural World does the same with a more refined, defined feeling of space. Musically but also in feeling -- as if there’s a difference.
The contributions of Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, piano, melodica), Nathan Golub (steel guitar) and Casey Toll (bass) are important to the spacious musical approach, but it’s also somehow in Fussell’s guitar and singing alone.
The haunted quality of the music makes me want to describe Fussell’s approach as exhuming ghosts, but at the same time, I can readily think of problems with that way of thinking. The past and future aren’t so far away here. At the same time, legends and myths, even ghosts, materialize within many of these songs.
Some things are eternal. Beauty is one. Strangeness another. Brutality is a third. The songs here reflect all of those, through the harshness and beauty of the natural world, the generosity, and brutality of humankind.
All are present in songs about coal miners, treasure seekers, canyoneers, and repo men -- some living, some in legend or ghostly form. The repo man is in one of the eeriest, saddest and most striking songs on the album, “Furniture Man”, taking a recurring character from old blues songs that feels relevant today and painting a portrait with a resigned sadness. The music’s especially mournful and clear, as he sings, “And if there ever was a devil who’d been born without horns / well he must have been a furniture man.”
Sadness is omnipresent, even in songs where the lyrics are too strange to allow us to immediately access the cause of the sadness, like on “Billy Button”, which could be nursery rhymes, jumbled Bible verses or the ramblings of an eccentric butcher. One of the many things Fussell reveals in these old songs is strangeness, a beautiful strangeness in the words and melodies, even of songs that we think we understand everything about, like “Bells of Rhymney” or the leaving song “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?”, which reveals layers of meaning the more you listen.
One question posed in “Bells of Rhymney”, “is there hope for the future?”, seems like a dominant one in 2017 and also a sentiment laying somewhere within the fabric of most of these songs. Fussell doesn’t seem to be too overtly or self-consciously trying to use old material to make commentary on the present. But it’s hard not to make connections, which is a testament to the power of these songs themselves and the way Fussell’s approach to recording them illuminates that power.