One of the nice things about this blog is that it sometimes takes me to music I probably wouldn’t have discovered without it. One such artist is Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose label sent me a press release about his new album – What in the Natural World. The album cover shows a lone man in rowing a canoe on a glass-smooth river while large circular objects loom around and behind him. They could be hills or cogs in a giant machine, but the result is the same. One man rows away from things bearing down on him, preferring to find his own path and his own was to solace.
“Jump for Joy” starts the album and immediately showcases Fussell’s guitar-picking skills. His voice is both relaxed and sharp at the same time as he sings about making it to the pearly gates (“Step right in, give [St.] Pete some skin, and jump for joy.”) and leaving behind a life of toil.
Fussell asks, “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?” I haven’t, but Fussell seems to have knowledge of such a rarity. His guitar is amped up a bit, and the drums by Nathan Bowles will get your toes tapping whle Fussell sings about an illicit affair with a married woman.
Fussell gets back to his theme of escape from burdens and desire on “Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine.” It’s the story of a miner, one of many, who seeks a treasure rumored to be in a mountain but has never been found. Fussell climbs rocky hills and crosses raging rivers to work the mine, “but its secret I will never know.” It’s a lovely ode to those who work hard all their lives for little, if any, reward in this world.
“Furniture Man” is one of the saddest and yet prettiest songs on the record. Fussell’s guitar work is a crisp as an origami fold on it as he sings about a man being broke and having everything he owns repossessed on a Sunday morning, including items that evoke memories of his dead wife. All he can do is ask the furniture man to take his time so he can hold onto the memories just a bit longer.
“Bells of Rhymney” is a bit funky, actually, with a nice bass walk by Casey Toll and a bit of country swing in Fussell’s guitar. His vocals get agile on “Billy Button,” as he sings about a man happy to be “bound for the happy land of Canaan.”
“Canyoneers” is a tribute to men who live, work, eat, sleep, and die in canyons and the many would only fly over in a tourist trap helicopter ride that costs nothing after you sit through a timeshare sales pitch. “What’s in a man to make him thirst for the kind life he knows is cursed? He’ll die a lonely a river rat foolhardy canyoneer.”
“St. Brendan’s Isle” brings in some Gaelic flavor as Fussell sings about brave sailors facing rough seas and literal demons trying to drag them to Davey Jones’ locker. Holy saints and angels preserve them until they not only meet St. Brendan, but even travel the world on the back of a giant fish in celebration. Could this celebration be one of realization? Are the sailors long dead and actually experiencing the joy of the afterlife? Judging by the prominent themes on What in the Natural World, the answer is probably “Yes.”
“Lowe Bonnie” closes the album. It’s another excellent display of Fussell’s guitar prowess, and his vocals remind me of Warren Zevon’s as he sings about a man slain by his angry lover who instantly regrets the decision to stab him.
Another man leaves behind a world of toil for something he at least hopes is better. The album’s title has no question mark. It’s a statement. There is nothing in the natural world that can compare with what comes beyond it. There is no toil. There is no suffering. There is joy unlike anything here.
Mr. Fussell wants us (and perhaps himself) to remember this, and he’s crafted one of the best records of the year to help us do it.
Keep your mind open.