From early musings peppered over lo-fi guitar scratchings and beat-laden samples, North Carolina-based folkmaster Josh Garrels now raises his brand of verve and verbosity to new heights of songwriting and production. At last this tall tree of a piper sounds truly free when pressed (and not reduced) to disc. With Jacaranda, he channels Jeff Buckley’s ghost more than ever. His ethereal, sometimes-unintelligible vocals often sound akin to an earthier, testosteronized version of My Brightest Diamond, minus Shara Worden’s classical training but with similar soaring trills and heaps of holy spirit.
The record rolls in like an aural fog with an instrumental. “Lake Yarina” taps a twinkling guitar amidst shuddering, Sigur Rós-ian instrumentation, the warbler’s voice rising and falling like the lapping tides of life. Garrels’ voice, more controlled and pristine with time, is showcased from the start here. “Don’t Wait For Me” beckons listen, an unblinking, beautiful ballad about not looking back.
Pitter-patter percussion takes over near the end of “Season of Rain,” a gorgeous meander of a song that finds Garrels mining familiar material: “The season of rain will bring labor pain, but its end will be the most wonderful joy.” The poet has long latched onto the metaphor of baking a new album as a birth of sorts. Similarly, “Little Blue” could be a lilting tribute to the singer’s infant daughter, née Heron: “My lover calls in fall and spring/ She says, Keep your eyes on heron’s wings/ She’s coming soon.” Stirring stuff. Birds, wings, flight – these are staples of Garrels’ lyricism, more so themes for the art of his wife, Michelle. (That’s her capably harmonizing the delicate, jouncy “dum dum dum”s on “Little Blue,” as well as contributing tantalizingly multi-toned CD art, as she did on Garrels’ previous release, Over Oceans.)
“Rabbit & The Bear” is the album’s centerpiece, a song populated with capering animals and richly textured musicality. Sometimes Garrels fashions lyrics and sounds surreal, almost otherworldly, something like what fellow folkies Page France do with title, verse, and song, all. His fantastical words can seem gleaned from a fairy tale, or, in C. S. Lewis’s words, from “the one true myth.” On “Rabbit”’s back rides “Centipede,” a buzzing stampede of an instrumental track peppered with blips and horns. And somewhere Sufjan blushes.
“Zion & Babylon” and “Rejoice & Lament” are vintage Garrels: gregarious, spiritual, steeped in thought. And likely to incite a persistent nod of the head, voluntary or not. Musically, the track bookended by those songs, “Never Have I Found,” is a throwback to the songsmith’s humble career kick-start, finds him thumping on the body of his guitar to generate some robust rhythms.
The album gets a bit heavy-laden with words at times: “Oh great mammon of form and function/ Careless consumerist consumption/ Dangerous dysfunction, described as expensive taste.” Pray tell, who else would (could?) pen lines like these – let alone use the word “mammon”? Maybe Blackalicious. The man’s throat can seem a machine gun. But in this way it becomes an eardrum-tickling grower of a concept album. Make no mistake: This batch of songs is to be digested, not inhaled, consumed as a whole album and hardly a kebab of strung-out singles.
“Words Remain” returns this disc to spare, inspired pieces putting in for a sum more than its parts. Some tiny, stringed hatchet – a banjo, or a ukulele? banjulele? – carries the song over a hypnotic melody. Garrels sings freely, “My hands are growing old, and weary with pain/ Still I fold them to pray, to the one unchanged.” If his 28-year-old hands are tired, it’s likely carpal tunnel from all that priceless guitar plucking.
“Jacaranda Tree” is an earthy, dewy surprise late in these 15 songs. (The album runs an hour in length.) Surreal imagery abounds: “Peeking through fingers, slung in our hammocks, cocooned/ Skimming the water, trapezed above time/ We glide like slingshot angels … up to Orion’s ribs.” It seems the song’s lyricist, one Michelle Garrels, has been reading her Madeleine L’Engle of late.
“Blessed Is He” ambles along breezily before being doused in clanging tribal drums in its last minute. “Desert Father” reminds of what an old soul this still-youthful singer truly is as he chases “the impossible dream.” Garrels’ songcraft is equal parts jeremiad and joy, the gritty theology delivered always with a bright, glinting eye.
The album ends gloriously. “The Original Spacefan” makes for a most touching tribute to a departed patriarch – with a nod to NPR’s “Hearts of Space” perhaps, a program with the sign-off “Safe travel, spacefan, wherever you are.” Indeed. A last instrumental, “Embarkation,” closes. Its title apropos, the outro brims with cerebral, subtle promise.
Sometimes an artist defies genre, and in this we rejoice. C’est la vie for Josh Garrels. Is it folk-hop? Neo-soul? Hard to peg, and thank God. Whatever it is, and it is many things to many ears, it’s housed in life’s wilderness.