It’s impossible to hear a Josh Rouse song and not know immediately it’s him. His sound has been so consistent since the start of his career, and though I personally favor his early 2000s catalogue (1972, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Nashville, and Under Cold Blue Stars), I can still always appreciate whatever he puts out there. His voice is still golden perfection, and he can still write a pop hook like nobody’s business. His latest, The Embers of Time, is a darker record than his more recent works, and it feels long overdue.
Rouse started out as a fascinating, original songwriter, but somewhere along the line, began to lose his edge a bit and sound more like a Starbucks soundtrack – easy listening with not a ton of substance. Time feels like the beginning of a return to form for him. It’s full of songs about loneliness and isolation, and a yearning for something bigger and better. This is never so true as it is on “New Young”, a catchy standout on Time with stunning slide guitars and harmonicas. This song would have been right at home on 2004’s Nashville. It’s that classic alt-country sound of which Rouse was an early pioneer. “Dreamed about Neil Young last night/rolled out of bed and rubbed my eyes/I’ll never be that good you know” he sings. I told you, it’s dark.
Another gem on Time is the throwback Rouse tune “Some Days I’m Golden All Night”. It’s classic Josh Rouse – a little sad, totally gorgeous, simple and not overly fanciful. Rouse confronts aging head on in this song, and does so poignantly. It’s got those soaring, soft and dreamy harmonies, lush strings and guitars, and driving percussion. It’s a song that feels like it’s literally in motion – moving swiftly, flying through the air. And if that isn’t what Josh Rouse is all about, I don’t know what is.
He carries this on with “Time”, another song about the experiences of getting older, racing against time and constantly needing to catch up to life. This song plays as a kind of photo collage of Rouse’s lovers and friends. The dinging of the xylophone is like the glorious ticking of a clock.
Time is a constant theme on this record. Rouse conveys anxiety in songs like “Too Many Things on My Mind” and “Worried Blues”. The latter is a groovy, retro-sounding song about feeling constantly worried through all of life’s banalities, like taking the kids to school, saving money and waking up early. This is the most fun had on this album, and it’s the perfect tempo for ass shaking.
There are a couple of forgettable tracks on Embers of Time, but ultimately, it does feel like Rouse is taking steps to reconnect with his old sound. “You Walked Through the Door” is another signature Rouse tune that convinces me how much I still love him and hold his music so dear. He makes songs that are easy to cry to, but that also can elevate you and make you feel like floating. And Time has just enough of that Rouse magic to keep me going.