The singing songwriting farmer from Boulder Colorado continues the magic on album number six.
Gregory Alan Isakov was born in South Africa, raised in Philadelphia and now lives in Colorado where he has a farm that harvests produce largely for the local shops and restaurants and for the local community food bank. Whilst farming he writes songs which every five years or so, he releases. His last album of original material was ‘Evening Machines’ five years ago (an album of dark introspection), and ‘The Weatherman’ was five years before that (an album emanating from a short story he was writing about a mythical figure, a weatherman who looms large in the public psyche but in effect has little impact on their lives). Isakov says he writes his songs over a long period, but they are always in transition phase, being edited, shortened and added to with words and phrases that come to mind as he processes the songs until recording them. Some of his songs can be heard at the end of various US TV series.
Apparently, he had 35 songs to pare down for the new record. He is unable, or perhaps loathe, to articulate what his songs actually mean, and his enigmatic imagery leaves their interpretation to the listener – which is fine, because Isakov has built a reputation for albums with a cinematic sweep, building layers of mostly acoustic sound and voices over his powerful, versatile voice, not unlike Nathaniel Rateliff (a friend) or the Swede Jose Gonzalez.
His albums have all been critically acclaimed by the music press. Don’t expect any different with the release of ‘Appaloosa Bones’. The album kicks off with a quite stunning track called ‘The Fall’, based on the risks of a trapeze artist falling during his act, only to get up again and repeat the act, but a metaphor for the fall that any one of us could experience and the need to bounce back “We’re still holding our breath We all break a little We all break a little We all break a little when we fall And everybody keeps saying, “Get up, get up” The fall, the fall, the fall”, There is a semi-spoken lyric, there are captivating harmonies, it is all driven by Isakov’s piano, banjo and acoustic guitar. The song has a spiritual and visual feel, which happens again and again throughout the album.
‘Before the Sun’, a banjo-driven song with a lovely chorus, speaks to one’s independence with the repeated refrain “I’m going on my own”. Isakov said that he intended this album to be a folksy lo-fi rock’n’roll album, but the songs took him in a different direction – towards the wide open spaces of the American West and South-West, and so the vivid soundscape that pervades most of the album developed from the embellishments that he added to the original songs – the wordless choruses, wrapped in swathes of orchestral keyboards as in ‘Terlingua’ or ‘Mistakes’. ‘The Watchman’ is a quite lovely lilting song (drawn from Isakov watching out for the sheep on his farm) with great harmonies again. ‘One day’ is about climate change, but, as in every song, Isakov leaves the listener to interpret it in his/her own way.
As with all his albums, the wordplay reads like poetry, set to music – there are virtually no rhyming couplets, so don’t think you will ‘get’ Isakov in one listen. You will be drawn initially into the cascades of sound, but extracting the full meaning of the songs is likely to take as long as Isakov took to edit them., Friends dropped by as he was recording in his converted barn studio in Boulder – including Leif Vollebekk, Danny Black – and Aoife O’Donovan added some of the extraordinary background vocals, but the instrumentation is very largely his. Isakov doesn’t deal in flashy solos but there two or three short, but pretty, acoustic guitar breaks, as in the closer ‘Feed Your Horses’.
Lay back with a bevy and imbibe this glorious album – you’ll get to the end, and just want to play it again.