Sunday, August 12, 2018

album review: 'i travel on' by jason eady

I've said this a number of times before, but it bears repeating: if you're looking for about the purest expression of indie country being produced in modern times, you pick up a Jason Eady record. The man has the uncanny ability to write songs where you're struck by how the hell nobody would have composed them before as they seem so elemental and straightforward, with the sort of layered nuance and eye for detail that pushes his material into damn near transcendent territory. There's nothing gratuitous or indulgent or wasted and with records like 2014's Daylight & Dark and 2017's self-titled release, he's released country that rises to the apex of the genre...

But there has been two criticisms of his work, both of which I get but neither of which bother me all that much, the first being that his songs can be a little too heavy and melancholy, which often leads to the follow-up that his work as a whole can feel a bit sedate and sleepy at points. I disagree with both points - the writing and compositions are tight and emotionally gripping enough that it's never bothered me, and it's not like his records run long - but Eady has taken those notes to heart and it led to a shift in the creation of this surprisingly quick follow-up project... which if possible stripped things down even further. No overdubs, primarily acoustic, recruiting two ringers from bluegrass of all things - although Eady has made it very clear that he'd never call this a pure bluegrass album, showing the sort of respect and consideration for the art you rarely ever see anymore for any genre - but with a focus on quicker tempos and a feel as if everyone was in the same room for the recording. Now on the one hand I had no idea how much Eady might be able to emphasize that even more - his records have always sounded incredibly intimate in their production - and while I was a little shocked how quickly these songs emerged, I definitely wanted to hear them as soon as possible, so what did we get from I Travel On?

Well, this is a bit strange - on the one hand, given that this is the fourth review of a Jason Eady album I've made, you can all probably guess much of what I'd otherwise say about it: it's a great album, another example of Jason Eady comfortably knocking it out of the park, probably more comfortably than ever, which leads me to a bit of a weird place. See, while this project is excellent and I'm not sure I'll have a lot to say more about it overall, the overall approach to composition and lyrics feels a little different - again, not bad, but I don't think it has the same weight or impact as earlier records... which yes, might be part of the point, but for me it doesn't quite hit in the same way.

So let's start with the change in composition, because it's surprisingly subtle if you're only giving Jason Eady a surface-level listen. Sure, the first thing you might notice are that the tempos are a little quicker and that Eady mostly handles this shift pretty well, or that the pedal steel has been swapped out for more banjo, dobro, and some of the best fiddle pickup this side of Dave Cobb or Jason Eady's wife Courtney Patton. And when you factor in how there's literally no production gimmickry to add to these mixes, it's hard not to wind up impressed how well Patton's harmonies naturally accent Eady's vocal line, or how the fiddles sound just ragged enough to flesh out the instrumental harmony with the acoustic guitars, or how the bass and percussion grooves are subtle but unmistakable, or how the entire album just has this rich, burnished warmth that's incredibly welcoming. Hell, it's probably the most openly upbeat and approachable record that Jason Eady has released since AM Country Heaven, but this time with the serious instrumental chops and sharp-as-hell songwriting that puts it in a different weight class. And even then this record still takes the time to add more melancholic balance and diversity: 'Always A Woman' leans into minor tones with a really striking melody line, as does 'She Had To Run', 'Now Or Never' has the strongest groove you'll probably ever hear in a Jason Eady song, and 'Pretty When I Die' is damn near a bluegrass crossover and a pretty strong one to boot. But it's here you also notice the biggest change in compositional style, where the instrumental solos and melodic development take more of a front seat instead of lyrics - the solos are more common, and while Eady is a good enough writer to get across his ideas effectively, the greater focus on the instrumentation gives the record a looser, more jam-driven vibe that lightens the tension... and when you consider how generally upbeat the record feels, it leaves cuts like 'That's Alright' almost feeling a bro-country song in structure, if not content.

Now while you all get your socks that just blew off, let me qualify that a bit, because Jason Eady is still the sort of songwriter that knows how to structure a thematically solid country album, in this case leaning into a growing acknowledgement of trying to make the right choices where he can and thanking God whenever he's saved from the worst when he can't control the results or can't even pretend to understand how things have gone. The quote that ran through my mind across a lot of this record is how the older we get the less we truly 'know', and Jason Eady is both self-aware and humble enough to accept this - not deny his or anyone else's agency, but also be conscious about what he can or cannot fix. And while songs like 'Happy Man' show him content with his life as it is, he's not about to deny when the situation gets truly bad like on the abusive relationship between the lines of 'She Had To Run', not only was her choice difficult but necessary, but also shows him having to accept being a secondary figure in the story, a nice subtextual touch emphasized by Patton's well-placed backing vocals. Similar subtext creeps into 'Always A Woman', where not only is the angst of both men plain in the face of their significant others, but also showing an impressive amount of ambiguity in what pulls both back from the brink, be it good or ill. But in both cases the forward momentum doesn't ever stop, and while on songs like 'The Climb' it's never quite clear where the hell the destination might be, you have to take it in stride like on 'Below The Waterline' and 'That's Alright', the latter of which almost feels like a bro-country song in its list style and lighthearted picture of the good times rolling in, but fits as a nice piece in contrast. And while there is that ambiguity, the album is nicely bookended by the acknowledgement that love is ultimately the clearest picture of an endpoint, and he just hopes he doesn't change too much in reaching it that it doesn't feel the same, even if he'll stumble, lose his mind, or have to get a boost from a friendly hippie along the way.

Now does this all mean it has the impact of 'Daylight & Dark' or 'Barabbas' or any of the quietly devastating road songs that Jason Eady has released in his career? Well, no, and it'd be disingenuous to say otherwise - again, this is a pretty lightweight record. A great listen, to be sure, and the technical acumen is ridiculously strong in terms of melody and construction, and I find it hard to actively dislike anything here - I've seen some comments calling it music for its own sake and I definitely agree with that - but there's a part of me that will inevitably compare this to Eady's best, and I'm not sure this gets there. It might be that his voice is a slightly better fit for more reserved, downbeat cuts, but that's me nitpicking a record that's too damn warm and genuinely fun to do so. So with that, this is a solid 8/10, absolutely recommended, probably Jason Eady's easiest record to jump into even if I'd argue Daylight & Dark, the self-titled record, or Something Together are a bit better in my books. But yeah, if you're looking for a warm, enjoyable, true country release, you can't do much better than this, so definitely check it out!

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