How to revisit your younger self and make timeless music for today.
This album is a joy due to its simplicity, however, simplicity does not mean it lacks sophistication. It manages to capture the pure essence of a catalogue of eighty-plus songs, including one cover, and each song is given the simplest arrangement to allow its true character to shine through. Canadian singer-songwriter and JUNO Award winner Justin Rutledge has re-recorded key songs from his catalogue in a way that presents them anew and hints at the timelessness of good songs. While Rutledge started his career in the London americana scene of the 2000s he has developed his career primarily in Canada and he is a good enough songwriter to maintain the tradition started by fellow Canadian songwriters Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. In his interview with Americana UK, Rutledge explains the drive for simplicity that lies behind ‘Islands’ and while it acts as a retrospective of his career, it is also fresh and vibrant. The album was recorded in three days at the start of 2020 with producer Chris Stringer and Rutledge band members Tom Juhas and Aaron Comeau but it is, with a few exceptions, essentially Justin Routledge’s voice and guitar. Additionally, this re-recording was planned and completed before COVID struck so it should be seen as a continuum of Justin Rutledge’s career and not a stopgap. The fact that this is more than a basic greatest hits album is reinforced by the fact the songs are sequenced to provide an album-specific flow rather than in chronological order.
The album opens with ‘Come Summertime’, a fan favourite from Rutledge’s second album ‘The Devil on a Bench in Stanley Park’ that is both delicate and beautiful. The next track, ‘Good Man’ is from ‘Passages’ from 2019 and is inspired by one of Justin Rutledge’s family and their personal demons. Rutledge doesn’t really do joy and happiness and we are back to his second album for the muscular ‘This Is War’ which deals with marital breakdown. ‘Out Of The Woods’ is a key track from the JUNO winning 2013 album ‘Valleyheart’ and is a song of dark tones, again about a relationship. The next track is also a relationship song, but this time it is a cover of fellow Canadians the Tragically Hip’s ‘Nautical Disaster’ and here Justin Rutledge shows what great music Canadians can make. We go back to 2008 for ‘Alberta Breeze’ and its “The summer’s turned it’s back on me with a sorrow-laden symmetry, With a highway kind of robbery, Like my life was an apology, Now I don’t think about you all the time, Only when the trees sway somehow slaughtered by the Alberta breeze”. We stay in 2008 for ‘St Peter’ from ‘Descending Man’ which is clear evidence of Rutledge’s ability with interesting lyrics. While ‘Federal Mail’ may come from Rutledge’s debut album ‘No Never Alone’ here it is in a piano and guitar jazz instrumental arrangement. The album ends with the lead single ‘Jellybean’ which has been featured in Rutledge’s live shows since the start of his career. Despite many attempts, this is the first time that he feels he has come up with an arrangement for this fan favourite that is worthy of recording for posterity.
If you haven’t heard Justin Rutledge’s music then you should, if you were a fan in the 2000s but lost touch as his career became Canadian-centric then this is an excellent way to reconnect. It demonstrates the real strengths of Justin Rutledge’s music while reflecting his maturity as an artist and father and not ignoring the best of the youthful Justin Rutledge. The Tragically Hip were a band that were massive in Canada but apart from a cult following outside of their home country, they never really travelled well despite the quality of their music. It is up to listeners to determine whether the same fate awaits Justin Rutledge.