“Transnormal Skiperoo is a name I invented to describe a strange new feeling I’ve been experiencing after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed. Now, when everything around me begins to shine, when I find myself dancing around in my back yard for no particular reason other than it feels good to be alive, when I get this deep sense of gratitude that I don’t need drugs or God or doomed romance to fuel myself through the gauntlet of a normal day, I call that feeling ‘Transnormal Skiperoo.'”
— Jim White
Jim White’s always had a bit of the backroad mystic in him, with songs that seem to look at life’s larger issues from a 3/4 angle while the rest of us are staring at them straight-on. Maybe it’s his accumulated years wandering the earth as a surfer, a taxi driver, a fashion model, and a musician, among other thing. Maybe it’s just that he’s the naturally creative type. Whatever the case, over four albums and a film, White’s established himself as an artist who doesn’t just sling a bunch of songs together. Whether he’s opting for off-kilter Tom Waitsisms, acoustic ruminations, or shout-to-the rooftop celebrations, White never loses sight of the things that concern him.
Consequently, White’s latest, Transnormal Skiperoo, resonates with themes of traveling, becoming lost, and maybe just finding your way home again, and not just in the physical sense. Right off the bat, White takes a topic that many artists would use to close an album — the acceptance of life’s ways that comes with age — and uses it to kick off Transnormal Skiperoo. In “A Town Called Amen”, White muses, “Oh, the sweet wine of youth / Goes sour over time / Seems like the more that you lose / The more you ache to find / A town called Amen”. Of course, then it’s down to the brass tacks of getting there, and “Blindly We Go” readily admits, “sometimes you gotta take off your shoes / Sit right down in the middle of the road / Kick off the dust and deal with the news / That you are blind”.
This tone of acceptance, however, doesn’t mean that White advocates giving in and becoming a cog in the machine. Unsurprisingly, given White’s own interesting life, he’s leery of the status quo. “Tourquoise House” laments, “if I walk the straight and narrow / One more day I think I’ll die”, while “Counting Numbers in the Air” sees futility in “how we get lost / Going from here to there / Counting numbers in the air / Cheekbone to a cool stone wall”.
That push-and-pull between restlessness and comfort has filled White’s songs for years now, so it’s only fitting that the album’s centerpiece is an older song that he’s been tinkering with for a while, and which encapsulates both desires. “Jailbird” starts off with mournful, distant harmonica before the song blossoms into a warm, midtempo lope punctuated by birdsong and subtle percussive touches as White sings, “I wanna be a jailbird / From the prison of my own damn mind / Gonna get me a fast car / Set out and see what I can find”.
“Jailbird” is also a good standard bearer for Skiperoo‘s airy, uplifting update to White’s sound, which has quickly evolved past the Southern Gothic tag that greeted his debut, 1997’s Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, and 2001’s No Such Place. Joe Henry’s production touches on 2004’s Dig a Hole in that Substrate brought a new level of warmth to White’s songs, a trend which this new album continues. Skiperoo‘s production team of Joe Pernice and Michael Deming — along with musical contributions from folks like Ollabelle, Laura Veirs, Don Chambers and GOAT, and bluegrass team Jeff & Vida — help White achieve a light, textured sound. Most notably, White’s more atmospheric pieces don’t go as deeply into dark corners as they have in the past. The result is that jauntier songs, like “Tourquoise House” (which sounds like it could easily be a Dan Hicks track) aren’t as jarring as they once were.
In fact, one of Skiperoo‘s moodiest pieces actually turns out to be a bit of misdirection. “Pieces of Heaven” sounds for all the world like a depressing ode to a lost love, with lyrics like, “From before you were born till you’re old as sin, / Your wild oats strewn / Across the fields of time, / My one prayer will always be, / That someday you, like me, / will see pieces of heaven in photographs of you and me”. But it’s actually a heartfelt note to his daughters. At the very least, it’s sonically heavier than White’s tale of a troubled soul destined for the asylum (“Take Me Away”), lives in stasis (“Fruit of the Vine”), and self-sabotage (“Plywood Superman”).
White’s always possessed an ethereal quality, even on his most earthbound songs, so this lighter sound suits him well. Although, truth be told, his style is so fluid and smooth that it seems to fit well into whatever frame a producer puts around it. Finishing one of his records always leaves you feeling as if an enigmatic wanderer’s just left town. Transnormal Skiperoo, another quality addition to a too-short list of White releases, is no different.