The approach couldn’t be more different. On 2008’s Vagabonds, Jayhawks co-founder Gary Louris’ only solo venture before this one, Jump for Joy, he employed a choir, a pedal steel guitar, and a cadre of versatile musicians. Here he does it all himself, producing and playing all the instruments. That should not be surprising as Louris has had plenty of high-profile producer roles too. Yes, this is one of those let-me-get-fully-acquainted-with-my-home-studio pandemic recordings. Yet, his signature beautifully woven, melodic, power pop sound remains. He remains the master of infectious Beatlesque hooks.
You hear them right off in the opening “Almost Home,” the single. The tune was originally pitched to AT&T for a commercial but rejected. Louris wrote a chorus, a verse, and a bridge to complete the song. It’s one that those who have logged many miles, by air or ground, can relate to – “Miles of empty skies and ever-winding streets So incomplete and all alone When I close my eyes I always see your face I hear your voice I’m almost home I hear your voice I’m almost home.” The following tune, “Living In Between,” has an even more gorgeous melody and Louris made up for the lack of a choir by layering his voice to create a similar effect.
“White Squirrel” slows it down with hazy, psychedelic undercurrents. It’s an interesting image of loneliness that he paints, likely pandemic induced but resolved with reassurance. “Ever feel like a white squirrel in the sunlight ‘/Gainst the dark green grass/ Sticking out like a sore thumb in the noonday sun/While the brown ones run /But you’re not alone/ No you’re not alone No you’re not alone.” He sticks with the theme in “New Normal,” which ironically was not written during the pandemic but shortly after Vagabonds when he was first learning to record digitally. There’s a kaleidoscopic production effect, not unlike a spinning carousel, designed to reflect the time passing around you and emphasizing the importance of remaining still to observe and appreciate the little things, expressed as feeling the wind blow or the grass beneath one’s feet.
He captures the lonely feeling of a writer’s life in “Updike,” marked by clever wordplay in the opening – “Mr. Updike john/ Does your rabbit run/ With your brushed-back hair/ So cool and so debonair.” “Follow” is a straightforward love song- “Home only where you are/won’t you take my arm and just follow?” with a radio-friendly melody that makes it a clear standout. The strummed “Too Late the Key” will remind, more than any other, of that classic Jayhawks sound. “One Way Conversation” begins as lightly strummed folk and blossoms into glorious pop in the choruses, clearly another example of pandemic-induced thoughts as he pleads for just one face-to-face conversation. He creates some interesting effects with synths and vocoders here as well.
As you might guess, the title track, ostensibly about enthusiasm is rather sarcastic instead and is one of the few truly dark tunes. The closing “Dead Man’s Burden” is the most fully realized song with some 15 verses, filled with many thoughtful lines that one can’t help but associate with the stay-at-home fearful period we’ve just endured. It’s over soon, it will be over soon Just like the buffalo We killed the buffalo It’s only then when near to death We learn to love our lives again Like when we were but little children Running wild among the fields of grass.” Louris saved the best for last. This deep tune is among the best he’s ever written, and the album is as good, maybe even a little better than Vagabonds, if not musically, certainly lyrically. Hopefully, we won’t have such a long gap before his next solo outing.