One cannot point out too many positives about the recent COVID pandemic. However, many musicians were stuck at home and unable to tour, which compelled many to reevaluate their approach to life and art. Instead of sitting around and doing nothing, many took the opportunity to try new things. Such is the case with Seth Walker. He used the time to write his first book, Your Van Is on Fire: The Miscellaneous Meanderings of a Musician. The work includes short stories, poems, and paintings, and according to Walker, it allowed him to cleanse himself of the “residue” accumulated while recording ten albums of songs.
Walker’s 11th record, I Hope I Know, was born during the pandemic and bears witness to the slowness of its creation. The liner notes that I Hope I Know took longer to create than his previous efforts. The songs are primarily thoughtful and introspective. They share a common theme of searching for meaning and the belief in hope even when one doesn’t understand what’s going on. Let’s face it. The world has changed. The certainty that tomorrow would be much the same as yesterday no longer exists. Or, as Walker proclaims on the opening track, “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be”, nothing is the same as it was before. Not only has the world changed, but so have we.
This is the new reality. Walker delivers the news in a quiet, conversational voice. He sings like he’s talking directly to the listener. He communicates his feelings through his guitar playing. Walker picks more than strums and lets the strings resonate to express a kind of sweetness, even when presenting the blues. For example, his cover of Bobby Charles’ classic “Tennessee Blues” moves like molasses as he dreams of being alone. He never rushes the lyrics, and there are long pauses between the notes to convey his loneliness. Walker isn’t sad as much as he is at peace being by himself.
Walker approaches the other covers, Van Morrison’s “Warm Love” and Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, in the same way. He sings them quietly and lets his fingers communicate the deeper emotions on the fretboard. “Life is sad / Life is a bust / All you can do, is do what you must,” indeed. Walker’s acoustic guitar paints the picture for half a minute before he opens his mouth, and then he is joined by Scott Walker on cello. The sound of the two-stringed instruments carries the weight of the material in a way the words cannot by themselves. There is something primal about their sonic expressions.
The bulk of the songs on I Hope I Know are originals cowritten by Seth Walker with Gary Nicholson or Oliver Woods. These tracks frequently convey the tranquility one can find after a calamity. Walker and Woods even wrote new words to Thomas Dorsey’s gospel standard “Peace in the Valley”, which assures one that despite life’s hardships, inner peace can still be found. Walker knows there is no reason to cry because there is every reason to cry. It’s the paradox of being human and the grace of believing in a higher power. At least he hopes so.