Try as I might, I cannot hide my deep love and respect for Gregory Alan Isakov. I stumbled upon him randomly a few years ago, and have been a true fan ever since. Up until recently, I had never imagined he would be releasing new music. The Weatherman, what was his latest album, was released in 2013. Then there was the beautiful remastering of old songs with the Colorado Symphony. The record is a masterpiece, but it was nothing new. Until October 5th rolled around, and with it Evening Machines.
I wasn’t ready for it.
Well, technically, I was. I had an alarm set and everything, but emotionally… I wasn’t ready for it.
The first listen was hard. Isakov has tried a lot of new things in this album, and for a long-time fan, it was a bit jarring. But I never gave up. And now that I’ve listened to it more than a few times, I’m ready to speak about it.
Berth: Where am I?
The first track on the record. It hits you instantly, how fresh and new it all is. Isakov has incorporated synth beats that we usually don’t find on his tracks. His voice is layered and tweaked to sound almost ghostly. The staples of his songs are still present: the guitar, the violin, his magical voice. It’s all still there, but enhanced. I’d like to think it’s a song on bad endings. The haunting voices of the backup singer, coupled with the emphasis on the music… It makes me think of a dance in slow motion as everything crumbles apart.
Although I love the song, it’s strange to hear a Gregory Alan song that doesn’t put his voice in the spotlight. It sounds more like a Radical Face song, and I’m not used to thinking that. I’m not used to comparing him to anything. Isakov had always been in a different league.
San Luis: “I’m a ghost of you, you’re a ghost of me.”
As though he knows I’m upset, Isakov follows the new with something very familiar. San Luis brings his voice back to the forefront. We start off with nothing but his rich vocals covering a soft guitar. As the song progresses, a choir is brought in and seems to lift the song.
In this song, I am grateful to be able to hear his lyrics again. Beyond everything, Gregory Alan’s words have always been his best asset. He has a rare gift of taking pure poetry and putting it into song. In San Luis, you hear the poetry again. When he takes a long pause before the music comes back, goosebumps rise across my arm. I’m finally finding myself in this album again.
Southern Star: It starts and ends too soon
Two quick minutes. Just as you get used to hearing his voice, the song speeds up and rushes, leaving you breathless. By the time it slows down, and you’ve caught your breath, the song ends. Slowly, you start to process what you’ve heard, but there’s nothing left of it. You’re left blinking, wondering, where it all went.
Powder: “No sounds, just the quiver of a lip”
It’s slow and sluggish. His voice is steady and true. Her voice is light and airy. They’re oil and water. The song incorporates a steady drum beat and a repetitive melody, but it makes sense. Their vocals compliment the music well enough that you don’t notice it’s a loop. The lyrics are heard loud and clear, and I remember just how much I love his music.
“Even the moon’s half holding out”
Bullet Holes: A Gregory Alan love letter
This song is dialed back down. We’re offered his voice and a simple guitar strumming. Occasionally, the backing vocals elevate it from its understated nature, but the intention is clear. This is a no frills declaration of love. It’s not a passionate love affair, but the beautiful magic of every day love. The kind of love simple enough to mean so much more.
“drifting, passing through
until we all fall, we all do
in the meantime, come and cover me up
i’m all patched up and headed home”
Was I Just Another One?: Why does it end so soon?
It’s in your heart the minute you hear it. Nothing about this song can be fought. His vocals creep in, settling so comfortably in your ear like they were made to be there. The music sounds like the twinkling of wind chimes. I think of Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Ros. The irregular drum beat starts to change the song. It is less a sad goodbye and more a longing. I close my eyes and think of all the people I’ve had to say goodbye to. The music worms its way into my heart. I hate that it’s barely 3 minutes long.
I cannot hear anything but his voice. And slowly, I noticed he’s winding down. As he closes the song by asking, “Was I just another one?”, I know in my heart, he could never be.
Caves: “Let’s hear the stars do their talking”
Released prior as a single, I was very familiar with Caves. By the time the album came out, I was already singing along to every word. Caves is the anthem of friendship on a winter night. It’s light and bright. There’s a strong beat that gets your heart rate up. The guitar is strong and unwavering. There are bells. Actual bells. He rarely sings alone. A choir of backup singers carry the song out with him. I think of a group of friends out on the town in winter. Everyone is talking and in their own world. The narrator is comfortable enough to fade into his mind. It’s a song of trust and joy and wonder in the little things.
Chemicals: “How gravity’s gone”
Another single. The first one actually. When it first came out, I was hesitant, but now, I’m in love. His voice is high and broken. He’s almost lamenting something. It’s the feeling you have when you wake up from a horrible night. That broken feeling in your bones, and the dread of what’s to come. As the song progresses, and his voice becomes fuller, the fog lifts. It’s as though he’s accepted his state and has started to see the better side.
“How my hands can’t seem to find your hands in the dark”
Dark, Dark, Dark: A hopeful farewell
The last single of the album, Dark, Dark, Dark is a song on open endings. It’s a happier songs than most. The beat is light and his voice is rich and full. He’s celebrating the “half moon radio queen”, and I have decided to describe myself as such. The song is told from an outsider point of view. He’s not in the action but watching it unfold. As the radio queen prepares for the next step in her journey, Gregory Alan seems to smile at her and wave. “Won’t you sing me something for the Dark?” A last request before they part ways.
Too Far Away: Best Song on the Album
My love for this second was instant. The minute I heard the electric guitar, I was done for. A slow beat outlines the song, like mist rising at the early morning. It’s a goodbye song. The melody is a simple repeating tune that almost seems to nag at you. I see a slow dance before the world falls apart. The vocals and guitar transport you into a world of magic and white light. The nagging tune is the reminder that it’s all going to end soon. And you just wish it wouldn’t. It keeps building and building until there’s only silence. When he finally sings again, he sounds desperate. It’s as though he’s pleading for the end to delay a little longer. But somehow, it all winds down, and you hear his voice shift to quiet acceptance.
“before i go
i’ll leave you with this poem
about the galvanized moon and her rings in the rain
Where You Gonna Go?: The Nihilist
This one is hard to handle. The instruments play without purpose, as though they’ve given up. His voice sounds hollow. The repeating question: Where you gonna go? Where can you go? Isakov has accepted the pointlessness of it all. It’s a song for the nights where there’s no point in waking up and no point in falling asleep. Everything is just useless. So much so that the song itself feels pointless. As soon as it plays, I sigh and wonder if I should listen to it at all. How he manages to capture that essence, though, makes me listen to it all every time.
Wings in all Black: I’m not big on Country
Gregory Alan Isakov has always danced on the line of Country. A line I hoped he wouldn’t cross. For the most part, he hasn’t. Until this song. Although it’s a charming number on surprises, I can’t listen too often. It’s punctured by some talking lines. A hand picked guitar. A slow repeating chorus. It’s pleasant and quaint, but it doesn’t carry the emotions I’m used to. “How about that?” That’s what the song seems to discuss. That little feeling of surprise when a person acts a way you weren’t expecting.
It’s sweet, but it’s not how I had hoped the album would close.
Gregory Alan has had countless songs of home and travel. All his previous work recall that feeling of having no home. Of wandering. They’re a collection of stories he acquired on the road. In Evening Machines, it’s as though he’s finally settled down. The songs in this album are about every day situations. The boredom. The fight. The surprises. The goodbyes. These are the things Isakov has had the face by settling down. In his previous work, his stories were fleeting, punctuated by their temporariness. Evening Machines has put down roots and is here to stay. It’s also shown in the music itself. There are more complex beats. More electronic aspects. These are tools you have access to when you’re in one place long enough.
As though he’s aware of it, Isakov closes the album on these last words:
“I’ve been down down down down down down
but now I’m here”
And on November 20th, I’ll be there in front of him, watching it all played out.
Time to set another countdown.