Jeb Loy Nichols’ quiet new release Season of Decline is just a short six-song EP, but it contains a more transcendent punch than most albums twice its size. Nichols sings in a muted voice and softly strums his acoustic guitar. As a result, the recording is intimate. He lowers the volume of his instrument and his vocals when he wants to make a point, although he mostly keeps things on a steady keel. He sings of past glories and disappointments, present circumstances, and the promise of the future with the same tranquility. The American-born, Welsh denizen understands that sometimes being hushed is just the other side of the coin from shouting and can be the best way to express one’s spiritual discomfort.
On the EP’s title tune, Nichols notes that we are on the “Season of Decline”. He goes through a litany of ills and complaints, from the death of a drunken driver to an unhappy horse trying to get a drink at the bar, attempting to get to the deeper truths. Whether Nichols is sitting in a forest, a garden, a train station, breaking into someone’s home to watch TV or listening to windchimes, finding snakes in his bed, or getting unwelcome packages, he remains uncertain of what the deal is. He doesn’t know if life keeps getting worse or if it’s just a temporary malaise. He enigmatically sings, “The only ones who can see me are brother Ray and Stevie / My taste is gone my hearings bad I’m slowly going blind / I never felt better in the season of decline.” There’s humor in the ambiguity and real sadness in the joy of being in the current moment.
This attitude pervades the other five cuts in different ways. Nichols sings, “I promised all the earth to her / And all I ever brought was dirt” in a song about true love (“Dirt”). The muscle car (“GTO”) in his backyard will probably never be drivable except in his imagination, but that’s almost enough as long as Merle Haggard’s on the radio and he has his girl beside him. The sense of the absurd saves him from being maudlin and offers glimmers of hope. Even when he feels despondent, he finds some humor.
Nichols offers telling observations that enrich his stories and deepen the particular narratives into something bigger and more profound. There something dreamlike in the way he endows specifics into symbols of feelings that are hard to put into words without distorting their meaning. One might not understand exactly what “Blue music on the water / Blackbird nights” on the sad but beautiful love story “Apple Blossom Time” means. But the place described contrasts to the Big Apple streets where he finds himself (“B boys on Avenue A / Stray dogs in Tompkins Square / Old lady preaching on the corner”) suggests how out of place he feels in New York City (“So tiny in this world / So pitiful and small”). Nichols may be morose, but he remembers the good times.
It’s tempting to see the six tracks as a concept album about the death of a loved one. That is never explicitly stated as much as suggestively referenced between the lines. However, it is the central conceit of Am I the One for You. The irony of asking whether he has found his true love, and she is dead, is a bitter one. “They say time can heal the terror / Of every common pain,” Nichols sings and then continues, “But what they say is in error / True grief always remains.” That’s a hard truth learned from experience. This record serves a way of coming to terms with the human condition.