It is never easy to find postmortem emotional solace. Yet Luke Winslow-King‘s quest for consolation is evident in his new album Blue Mesa. Decamping from his usual New Orleans haunts, the singer-songwriter recorded the album in Italy. The new geography roused introspective emotionalism and the use of novel musical vistas. Despite his new surroundings, the sounds of the Mississippi Delta still radiate through Blue Mesa. As a result, Winslow-King’s album features smoky vocals and sharp guitar playing while both lyrics and music ruminate deeply on inner journeying.
Winslow-King’s velvety and bedraggled voice is emboldened on Blue Mesa. The album’s laid-back vibe makes it easy to overlook his vocal contributions. But on a closer listen, Winslow-King’s voice is steady yet weathered while consistently conveying melancholy. Blue Mesa exudes a sense of loss. This album was influenced by Winslow-King’s mourning for collaborator and friend Lissa Driscoll who passed away in 2017. “Farewell Blues” was written after Winslow-King learned of his late father’s cancer diagnosis. Throughout Blue Mesa, the lyrics and vocals portray the intensity of Winslow-King’s bereavement.
Winslow-King begins the album with the Delta blues-inspired “You Got Mine” co-written by Driscoll. This track introduces listeners to the album’s quintessential energy. After a short drum roll, Winslow-King’s guitar takes over then showcases shrewd musicality. Indeed, Winslow-King’s and his longtime guitarist Roberto Luti’s musicianship are formidable. The guitar’s musical instrumentation is the track’s, and arguably the album’s, focal point. The guitar’s sting creates a balanced aural counterpoint to Winslow-King’s smooth vocals extenuated by the gospel-infused background vocalists. As the track ends, Winslow-King’s guitar interjects a call-and-response with the vocals. This adds a layer of harmony while reflecting an improvised jazz standard. A similar call-and-response is reiterated on the track “Better for Knowing You”. The emphasis on instrumentation is not only a nod to Winslow-King’s own musical acumen but also a central characteristic of the Delta blues.
Unlike Winslow-King’s 2016 post-divorce album I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always, Blue Mesa shows more evidence of galvanized rock ‘n’ roll independence. “Leghorn Woman”Leghorn Woman“ is an amalgam of indie rock and improvisational blues. Similarly, “Born to Roam” includes Winslow-King’s bluesy vocals and jazzy guitar playing but embodies a stolid renegade rock anthem. When Winslow-King sings, “Never gonna settle down and find no boss / I’m a rolling stone / I was born to roam / No direction home”, he’s reflecting on a life of independence and a sense of otherness.
Creating a dynamic interplay between vocals and instrumentation, “Thought I Heard You” is Blue Mesa‘s standout track. The song starts with a low rumbling guitar accentuated by Winslow-King chanting “Thought I heard, thought I heard”. On the downbeat he develops the lyrics to include “Thought I heard you say goodbye”. At this point the tempo swoons and the rest of the track maintains the eruptive tenacity. The repetitive lyrics shows the song’s narrator obsessively pondering what “I thought I heard” evoking a consideration of heartache’s influence on memory. This endows the track with a desolate and whirling energy.
On the one hand, one should credit musicians, including Winslow-King, who attempt to find influence across musical genres. On the other hand, Winslow-King’s eagerness to embrace so many different genres seems hectic, and his astute blues understanding is lost to experimentation. For example, “Born to Roam” is a stalwart example of Southern rock or the quasi-reggae sound in “After the Rain” is energizing. Winslow-King even adds an element of sultry sexuality as heard in “Chicken Dinner”. However, these tracks’ blues aesthetic are forfeited. Also juxtaposing “Leghorn Woman”, the Leghorn is a breed of chicken originating in Tuscany, to the overt sexuality in “Chicken Dinner” evokes problematic objectification of women as poultry and sexuality as a type of consumption.
Blue Mesa‘s lyrics are tenderhearted and frequently soft-spoken but profess an honest emotionality. The delicacy is magnified by the attacking guitar that also supports the melodic line. This contrast between the guitar and vocals is exemplary of Winslow-King’s Delta blues influence and Blue Mesa’s unmistakable musicality.