With his usual modesty, Gary Louris would probably call himself the co-leader of the Jayhawks. But the reality is that they didn’t become one of the best bands in the world until he took over as their main songwriter. And that’s not meant as disrespect to Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan, whose harmonies became so crucial to Louris’ eclectic lyrical brilliance, which blends influences from Big Star, to Bowie, to all sorts of Americana and psychedelia.
Beyond the Jayhawks, Louris has released plenty of material, notably with Golden Smog. His latest solo record, Jump for Joy is streaming at Spotify. The title could be taken at face value, or as total sarcasm. It’s definitely an album for our time: the spectre of death and impending doom hangs over many of the songs here, although there’s some upbeat material as well.
He opens with Almost Home, a cheerfully shuffling, Tex-Mex flavored, band-on-the-road saga livened by his usual colorful narrative detail. Living in Between could be the Jayhawks: gorgeously Beatlesque vocal harmonies, bittersweet changes, some George Harrison-ish slide guitar and an allusively troubled look at the bewildering state of the world. “All the books that I have read didn’t get me through,” Louris concedes. Ain’t that the truth.
Set to a hypnotic web of open-tuned acoustic guitars, White Squirrel is another typically imagistic number, a hopeful anthem for anyone who feels alienated and atomized by encroaching New Abnormal fascism. It’s Louris’ Rock N Roll Suicide.
Driven by a sunshiney keyboard riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jayhawks’ Smile album, the fourth track is titled New Normal. It’s surreal to the extreme, although Louris finally drops the facade as his guitar solo goes sputtering over the edge, the world outside “gathering like slow death, nipping at your heels.”
He salutes John Updike in the glamrock anthem after that: it brings to mind Ward White‘s most literary work. The guitars chime and shimmer throughout the Merseybeat-flavored next cut, Follow. The rest of the record alternates gloomy numbers with contrasting optimism, beginning with the richly textured, wintry guitars of Too Late the Key, a somber contemplation of missed exits with potentially catastrophic results.
One Way Conversation is an enigmatic, pensive, possibly elegaic number with tinges of Kraftwerk, Indian music and the Grateful Dead. The album’s chiming, lush title track is very guardedly exuberant: “Hip hip hooray for the longue dureé, bearing this parade of souls.” He closes with the eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic Dead Man’s Burden. It asks more questions than it answers. Do we have it in us to transcend the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way? We’re going to have to figure that out this fall and winter when the toll from the needle of death starts to skyrocket.