Jim White’s first couple of records are classics of the genre; they were strange missives and they heralded a new voice. It’s frightening to think that it is 20 years since Wrong-Eyed Jesus and this latest record – with a title that’s almost a parody of a Jim White record title – tries hard but ultimately falls short. White is an engaging performer and live he often bends his songs into interesting new shapes. White doesn’t make bad records, he doesn’t write bad songs, but he didn’t used to write ordinary songs and he does now, and that’s what is disappointing.
It starts strongly with Drift Away, which is a quiet storm of a song, with clouds of banjo that never break and hushed vocals; it’s intimate and engaging and like his best work it draws you into the song. Whereas Long Long Day sounds like it’s from a musical, which got me to thinking about a musical based on the works of Flannery O’Connor, this would sit nicely in that, as would Reason to Cry. Then comes the novelty Playing Guitars, a fun piece about hipsters playing guitars, but its appeal fades quickly. It is the flashes of core White that stand in relief to the less interesting genre pieces: Far Beyond The Spoken World is another one that whisks you off to his own private Oz.
Earnest T. Bass at Last Finds The Woman of His Dreams is a knockabout duet, a kind of mugging parody of country music whereas Sweet Bird of Mystery is touching and sincere. There a few artists as mercurial as White; at times he sounds like he’s retreading the same ground and then abruptly changes direction so as to not repeat himself – it leads to muddled records that have no continuity and highs and lows. He still has the germ of greatness within him, it’s just that it doesn’t come out so often these days. These gripes may sound churlish but White set his own bar. It’s not that he makes bad records; more he doesn’t make records as good as he has, and few have reached those heights.