This Empty Northern Hemisphere
This is definitely not an album that jumps out of the speakers and grabs you on first listen. Gregory Alan Isakov has one of those naturally attractive singing voices that is easy on the ear, and just about all the songs are taken at the same relaxed tempo, with acoustic guitar, cello and violin to the fore. It is an album with a consistent “feel” running through it and has an elusive allure that, given half a chance, is liable to creep up and capture you unawares.
Isakov's lyrics are poetic, elliptical and frequently abstruse. They certainly don't yield up their meaning on first listen, and it must be his hope that his audience will have the patience to come back to them to gradually work out what they're about. He is all about creating a mood rather than telling a straightforward story. The opening lines of the title track are characteristic: Smoke it flies from whisky mouths, Vagabonds walk this suitcase town, Summer left us beckoning, The cottonwoods were all worn out.
“Dandelion Wine”, the album opener, sets the scene nicely for what's to come. Isakov uses just a few short finely-honed verses to conjure up the mood of one of those lazy summer days when it's just too hot to do anything. It's an atmospheric track with simple acoustic guitar, cello and delicate banjo behind languorous vocals.
A couple of the songs are a bit more straightforward. “Evelyn” is about a girl stuck in a dead-end job on the graveyard shift, dreaming of something better. And “Words”, about being separated from your lover, shows Isakov has the capability to produce more simple direct lyrics when he wants: So I’ll send you my words, From the corners of my room, And though I write them by the light of day, Please read them by the light of the moon.
“Idaho” has some nice pedal steel and acoustic guitar and “Master & A Hound” has earnest yearning vocals, with guitar and backing reminiscent of Nick Drake. The album closer is the Leonard Cohen song “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. In a version that doesn't stray that far from the original, it gives a clue to Isakov's aspirations, for as a lyricist you can see a close parallel with someone like Cohen.
Although this is Isakov's fourth album, he's still relatively unknown. But he's touring the UK in June in support of the album, which will provide a welcome opportunity to get to know him better.
Click here for tour dates.