On the family tree of influence, Gregory Alan Isakov sits on a branch connected to a thicker branch where Elliott Smith perches, in turn connected to a yet thicker branch where Nick Drake alights, all folkish artists who navigate the underworld of melancholy, loss, and bittersweet experience. Isakov’s oeuvre, starting with his 2003 debut, Rust Colored Stones, reflects a lyrical and sonic exploration of the precariousness of life, how love and desire manifest amidst the backdrop of inevitable death.
Building on 2013’s The Weatherman and 2009’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere – projects that cohered his talents as a songwriter, singer, and texturalist – Isakov now releases Evening Machines, a reiteration of moody tones, fluid musicality, and oblique lyricism. “Oh, highway boys all sleeping in / with their dirty mouths and broken strings,” Isakov sings on “San Luis,” offering imagery that might’ve been extracted from work by the Dadaist poet Andre Breton or the American surrealist Charles Simic. “I’m a ghost of you, you’re a ghost of me,” he adds. As Isakov’s soundscapes are replete with swirling and decentered atmospheres, so too his lyrics point towards the reality of impermanence: that belief in a separate and definitive self is an egoic impulse, even if that chronic attachment, and the existential challenges related to it, is the primary source of creative expression in the western world.
This is music that implies the misnomer of self but is infused with an anxiety that can only exist as the result of an uber-Romantic investment in selfhood. “Powder” opens with an elegantly distorted piano part. Background vocals are alternately euphonic and discordant, effecting a paradoxical beauty that both enthralls and perturbs, reminding me of Cat Power’s Moon Pix and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days. The fifth track, “Bullet Holes,” opens with a compelling absence of reverb, a potent contrast to the spacey tracks that precede and follow. “Silver and gold / precious stones, so I’m told / aw, we’re clutching, but there ain’t nothing we can hold,” Isakov sings, further addressing the themes of transience and egoic delusion.
“Caves” occurs as a notable confluence of sonic elements, wistful melody, and eloquent lyricism: “I used to love caves / stumble out into that pink sky / remember that bright hollow moon / it showed our insides on our outsides.” The possible reference to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” gains immediate traction; Isakov’s final line, intermeshing “insides” and “outsides,” cleverly invokes the deconstruction of familiar boundaries. “Dark, Dark, Dark” shows Isakov mixing poetry and portraiture: “Maria’s got wings, she’s got legs for the sea / a captain’s coat and a note for me / wake up Marie, before the season turns / set your dash for the coast, watch the Sangres burn.” The album closes with “Wings in All Black,” a torturous melody and delicate vocal that bring to mind M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent. “Hope was a word, just a glimmer of the blade / man, how it sang like an old serenade,” Isakov concludes, reveling in ambivalence, the psychological state from which he ironically draws – indeed, many artists ironically draw – an abundance of inspiration.
Isakov has always been most accessible in his starker works, his voice most articulate when placed within a roomy setting so as to translate intimately, not having to compete with loud or elaborate instrumentation. Then again, this modus operandi can result in a redundancy of tone and tempo, and Evening Machines includes moments during which Isakov’s pop sensibility flags, his methodology leaning towards the formulaic. These missteps, however, are short-lived. Evening Machines doesn’t represent a new milestone for Isakov. Rather, it confirms that he has matured stylistically, securing a niche in the folk domain. Despite some repetitions and the occasional overreliance on default approaches, Isakov’s latest is an evocative album, consistently holding a listener’s attention.