The Jayhawks’ ninth record Paging Mr. Proust opens with one of the best songs the band has ever released, “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”. It’s the kind of song that, nearly 30 years into his influential career, one might presume that Gary Louris could knock out in his sleep. It contains all of the beloved, defining elements of the band: the plaintive lyrical introduction, shimmering folk-country guitars, and soaring harmonies, all of it anchored by Marc Perlman’s loping, confident bassline. If Louris were to create a paint-by-numbers system that churned out nine more of these in sequence and call it an album, I’m not sure there’d be much to complain about. The patented Jayhawks sound is just that good.
But there is no painting by numbers here. Rather, Paging Mr. Proust might be the band’s most adventurous collection of songs to date. On it, Louris proves he is a songwriter devoted to adding new ideas and sounds to his creative palette. Joined by longtime collaborators Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan and produced at turns by Louris, Peter Buck, and Tucker Martine, that sonic adventurousness might, ironically, lend longtime listeners attuned to the familiar cause for complaint. The new sounds can seem jarring at first listen, but quickly reveal common ground with the band’s contemporaries. “Lost the Summer” evokes Monster-era R.E.M. while “Comeback Kids” harkens to Wilco’s mix of electronica with Americana. “Ace” is the album’s deepest outlier from the classic Jayhawks sound, with its extended, feedback-drenched guitar jam that sounds more like an out-take from a Dream Syndicate record. Nonetheless, the dozen cuts here flow in an almost seamless sequence, and the album fits confidently into the band’s canon.
Louris seems in a reflective mood throughout the album, and not just lyrically. “Lovers of the Sun” and “Pretty Roses in Your Hair” both contain flourishes of sun-kissed 1970s pop. Grotberg’s backing vocals in the former evoke the light, naive sound of the Free Design while those of the latter resound with a mix of uplift and melancholy echoed by Peter Buck’s guitar feedback. A darkness lurks in this song of regret and in the album’s penultimate track “Lies in Black & White”, which addresses the dangers of living in the spotlight. This bitter reflection offers a timely message that life is chaotic enough without a media machine ever-poised to distort one’s experience into sellable copy.
But there is ample light in this collection as well. The upbeat “Leaving the Monsters Behind” offers hope amidst conflict with an opening declaration of “sticking it out, never knowing what you got” and its chorus of “I don’t want to fight”, echoed by Mike Mills’ always-welcome tenor harmonies. “The Devil Is in Her Eyes” with its plea of “Baby won’t you take a chance on me” offers a similar battle-weary bravado while “Dust of Long Dead Stars” bounces along somewhere between the Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?” and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” to create a classic late-night driving song, its “oh ohs” passing by like blurred mile markers. “I’ll Be Your Key” ends the album with beautiful melancholy.
Once upon a time the Jayhawks were one of the most promising young bands in the country. More than 25 years on, they may not have gained the major commercial breakthrough predicted for them, but Paging Mr. Proust shows that Louris and company have fulfilled that promise on their own terms. The album is a fitting addition to the band’s legacy and a confident demonstration that they are capable of keeping on for a long time coming.