Singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov is a contemporary troubadour. A facet of the indie folk scene since the early 2000s, his music pushes the parameters of songwriting, often employing literary and poetic elements. As a child, he emigrated to the United States from South Africa and pursued a non-traditional path that landed him in Colorado. Currently living on a working farm, Isakov devotes his energies wholeheartedly toward both the soil and his music. The overlap is unmistakable as his catalog demonstrates distinct themes addressing an appreciation of nature, identity construction, and striking a balance between solitude and community. Throughout his repertoire, Isakov’s keen devotion to language and imagery arouses the senses and lulls the listener into enchantment.
Isakov is the last person to trumpet his achievements or regale fans with a long analysis of his music. It’s a shame though, as his music brims with cultural references while paying homage to musical influences. When one takes a close look at Isakov’s music, the lyrical depth and musical acuity is humbling. With his new album, Evening Machines, recently released on October 5, it behooves his audience to revisit his most noteworthy works.
It’s clear from listening to “Dandelion Wine” that Isakov was recalling Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same title. Both novel and song typify a story of the summer, demonstrated as Isakov begins, “Summer days were just a magazine.” Bradbury and Isakov use their respective texts to consider the inevitability of change and employ the seasons’ cycles as symbols of transformation. The novel moves from summer to fall, likewise “Dandelion Wine” ends with Isakov singing “I rolled out the day that the apples fell.” Here, the music swells and provides a feeling of completion. The dandelion further symbolizes change, as it transitions from a greenling to a yellow flower, then taking its final form as a white puff of seeds. Much as the seasons, the seeds initiate a renewed cycle. More than a common weed, both Bradbury and Isakov see the power of the plant as it manifests into different forms, including wine.
In the introduction for Dandelion Wine Bradbury writes, “I was gathering images all of my life, storing them away…to open the memories out and see what they had to offer.” It’s clear “Dandelion Wine” and the album from which it was produced, This Empty Northern Hemisphere, follows the same trajectory.
Admittedly, the “Trapeze Swinger” isn’t one of Isakov’s originals. It was written by Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam who first made popular the tune. Beam wrote the song to illustrate the varying forms a relationship can take over a lifetime. As in “Dandelion Wine”, change is a theme Isakov revisits in his rendition. Isakov perfectly reiterates Beam’s purpose, then strengthens the song’s musical parameters. His voice over the acoustic guitar gives the track, and its subsequent message, a distinctive vulnerability.
The musical and vocal singularity is akin to the effect associated with introspection and regret. The anguish is echoed by the lyrics “But please remember me, my misery / And how it lost me all I wanted.” He isolates ‘my misery’ from the rest of the lyrics, thereby affirming the remorse and overarching melancholy. Additionally, Isakov’s refrain gives the song the visceral feel of trapeze swingers, perpetually swinging towards and away from each other. In doing so, he musically mirrors the lyric, exemplifying the reality of human connection and disunion.
“That Moon Song”
Isakov frequently points towards Bruce Springsteen as a source of inspiration. Indeed, the Boss’s influence is indisputable on “That Moon Song”. Isakov’s subdued and sometimes muffled vocals resemble Springsteen’s brand of musical mumbling. The lyric “those broken-hearted lovers have nothing on me” is so reflective of Springsteen’s tendency to romanticize the emotionally stricken, you might believe it was actually taken out of Springsteen’s songbook.
“That Moon Song” opens with automotive imagery, “the tail lights burn red / They were hotter than hell.” Again a nod to Springsteen’s own use of machinery and cars as symbols. Whereas Springsteen used cars to represent masculinity, Isakov avoids the pitfalls of gender stereotypes. “That Moon Song” portrays a spectrum of emotion, thereby challenging the linearity of masculinity. To even further remove the song from standard gendered construction, he relies on the formidable Brandi Carlile to provide the background vocals. She bestows the song with an ephemeral quality that acts as a counterpoint to Isakov’s raspiness.
“That Moon Song” isn’t the only nod in Isakov’s discography to Springsteen. “Living Proof” shares its title with a Bruce single; however, that’s the extent of the songs’ similarities. Springsteen’s version depicts his affection for a newborn, whereas Isakov focuses his eye on the surrounding land and environment. Throughout Isakov’s catalog, his bond to the earth and use of naturalistic imagery is evident. “Living Proof”, from his critically acclaimed third studio album The Weatherman, is the quintessential example of Isakov’s naturalistic appreciation. The lyrics “that sky glowed all calico like phosphor in the sea / To the ground we fall, she owns us all / Kings and boys and beasts” are a picturesque image of a sunset while also evoking a call to Maurice Sendak’s children’s tale Where the Wild Things Are.
Isakov rejects hyperbole and focuses on nature’s simple and ubiquitous beauty throughout “Living Proof”. As he reminds listeners, “When we were all flying free / We were dust from our bodies / And we were flicker and flame, yeah we burned till the morning.” He finds beauty in the minuscule and alliances with transcendental entities.
Isakov is a musician, but he is also a wordsmith, as demarcated by the single “3 a.m.” from the 2007 release That Sea, The Gambler. Written on Isakov’s drive home from the studio, the song subverts the standard refrain/chorus formula. Instead, “3 a.m.” resembles a lyrical poem as the lyrics create a stirring narrative addressed in the first person. When Isakov sings, “Cause I’ve been driving like a trucker, I been burnin’ through the gears / I’ve been training like a soldier / I’ve been burnin’ through this sorrow,” he constructs a story that at once demonstrates his standpoint while also effusing emotion.
“3 a.m.” showcases Isakov’s playfulness with poetic construction. The song demonstrates examples of anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive phrases. For example, “Give me darkness when I’m dreaming / Give me moonlight when I’m leaving.” His use of repetition emphasizes the emotional effect and amplifies the narrative.
Throughout Isakov’s career, he’s relied on his travels to inspire and create. Typically, his music mentions general locales including descriptions of autumnal hills and open waters to more specific vicinities such as the Black Hills, “Idaho“, and “San Francisco“. “Amsterdam,” the opening track from The Weatherman, reiterates Isakov’s penchant for scoring his wanderlust. Isakov doesn’t spend time discussing touristy destinations or cultural hot spots. Rather, the song renders a type of melancholy that comes with the realization that even in new environments, our troubles and past are still with us: “Oh, silhouette / She’s growing tall and fine…She’ll follow me down every street / No matter what my crime.” At our core, we are still the people we hoped to leave behind despite the new environments. Even though our present circumstances may change, the past maintains its stronghold on our identities.
The video for “Amsterdam” is a combination of stop-and-go animation, puppetry, and live action, designed and directed by Laura Goldhamer at Isakov’s farm in Colorado. Isakov is featured as a cutout with his back turned to the audiences’ gaze. Alone he traverses cobblestone streets and rows through canals. But when he is among others, he doesn’t interact. Goldhammer adroitly captures the appreciation for community and solitude Isakov expresses on this track.
“Arms in the Air”
Rust Colored Stones was Isakov’s first full length LP released in 2003. As with many artists, early endeavors depict a search for identity, be it personal, creative, or otherwise. The opening lines from “Arms in the Air” depict Isakov’s yearning: “All of my life / I needed a reason / To find out who I am.” As the song progresses, Isakov demonstrates an urgency in understanding his identity. This is frequently associated with those who desire to know what lays ahead but lack the patience to travel the paths leading them to that existential destination.
Isakov calls on Milton’s Paradise Lost as a subtext when he sings “Like I live in a dream / Alone in my Paradise Lost / Can it be real?” Using Milton’s text illuminates the track’s hopeful conviction, or a felix culpa, a happy mistake. Much as Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden was an unmitigated adversity, it also spawned humanity. Isakov understands at this moment, his life is mired in a quandary that will eventually metamorphosize into virtue.
Digging through Isakov’s catalog, one notices that several of his albums and individual tracks evoke an ephemeral quality verging on the dreamlike. Indeed, themes depicting the evening’s quietude or earthy chimeras are commonplace. In contrast, “San Francisco” demonstrates a realism that’s so stark, it seemingly reflects Isakov’s own life. The track begins with a lover’s departure, causing the depiction of California to change from rosy idealism to a muddied reality. Isakov, embittered but obliging, “Hitched along, but I turned wrong / How you moved me along, with your shepherd songs.” Clearly, the departure is the pivotal point of the track as he sings, “Lay down in your new town / Walk the ground / How you made me weep on Sansom Street.” San Francisco represents the “new town” while Sansom Street is found in Philadelphia, Isakov’s hometown. Isakov subtly presents the pain and astringency associated with separation. After “you’ve gone / After all we’ve known / And after all that I’ve been told / California’s cold” exhibits the absolute heartache extenuated by distance. With the connection to Philadelphia, Isakov’s song exudes authenticity.
The only new track from Isakov’s LP Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony (2016), “Liars” is a well-crafted piece that stands alone against the proven tracks. Lyrically, the song plays with a reference to the “One Red Paperclip Blog,” in which a man up-trades his red paperclip for items of more value, eventually attaining a house. Isakov takes this materialism, starting with baseball cards, but ultimately trades “this land to buy me some dreams.” In doing so, he removes the lure of materialism and emphasizes that the metaphysical has a value of intangible worth.
The video for “Liars” also conveys the track’s impression of joviality. The video cuts to an image of the artist walking through his farm as Isakov sings, “I am mostly happy / Some of the time.” The following scene is an image of Isakov climbing stairs with his bandmates (Jeb Bows, Philip Parker, and James Han) heading towards their performance. Notably, Bows reaches over and rubs Isakov between the shoulders, displaying the intimacy felt between two people who share a craft. Considering the lyrics juxtaposed with the images, it subtly relays Isakov’s own message of happiness. Throughout Isakov’s catalog, sensory detail is essential. But it’s undeniably palpable in “Liars”.
At first pass, “Caves” shares some audible and musical qualities with “Liars”, and for good reason. Isakov wrote “Caves” with friend Ron Scott for the forthcoming Evening Machines. Together, they hiked the hills of Colorado, languishing in the ability to be silent and contemplative while with a friend. This contrast between isolation and community is evident on this single. Isakov’s vocals here evoke two effects that simultaneously create an aura of solitude and intimacy. The slight modulated echo imitates Isakov standing in a cave, allowing his voice to reverberate off the walls. Considering it is only Isakov’s voice, the vocal feedback illustrates the artist’s detachment. The reverberation at times also gives the impression of a chorus akin to a live performance with the audience faithfully singing along. The echo is a distant but coeval sound, analogous to the space between audience and musician. Here, the lyrics create a bridge and semblance of intimacy between the two entities.
The Road to 'Evening Machines': Gregory Alan Isakov in 10 Songs