Gregory Alan Isakov
has been up-and-coming for some time, but his third self-released album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere
, is poised to be his breakthrough. With original lyrics which straddle longing, nostalgia, and heartache, Isakov delivers songs that defy categorization and speak to more universal truths. Backed by Brandi Carlile on a handful of tunes (with whom he's currently on tour), Isakov delivers one of the best breakthrough albums of recent note.
Heartache So Beautiful
This is the way I generally review CDs: they land in my mailbox, I unwrap them and put them in a stack according to release date. I work my way through the stack at a fairly slow pace, listening to each CD at least three or four times before putting hands to keyboard and typing out my criticism. There's usually one or two songs that stand out, usually an overall feeling the album gives me. I usually know immediately whether I'll ever want to listen to it again.
In the case of Gregory Alan Isakov's This Empty Northern Hemisphere, however, I tore the CD out of its envelope and immediately ripped it into iTunes. I've been listening to it for weeks on repeat, trying to establish a critical opinion, squinting hard in search of both pros and cons, musical phrases that felt derivative or tired. I've searched for some morsel that felt inauthentic. I've sought something that indicates the relative youth of Isakov's career, something I could hone in on and say "here's where there's room for growth." But I've found none of these things. It's a beautiful record. It's thickly orchestrated, warm, and full of so much sadness and longing. It's the kind of sadness and longing that leaves you with nothing other than the desire to lie on your back and watch the stars emerge behind passing clouds.
Lush Arrangements and Intuitive Lyrics
Gregory Alan Isakov© Todd Roeth
Each song tells just enough of a story to convey an emotion. Isakov has a knack for opening proverbial doors and inviting you inside. What you see and think and feel once you enter is up to you. He's simply there to stir up the clouds and dust. His arrangements are lush and intuitive, full enough to spread out against the speakers, but never crossing the line into overwrought melodrama. If his lyrics weren't so honest, they may almost feel effortless, as he lets lines like this one from "Big Black Car" (purchase/download
) roll right into necessary instrumental breaks: "Hope was a letter I never could send / love was a country I couldn't defend."
Cover Tunes and Collaborations
A nod must also be given to Brandi Carlile
, who provides backing vocals for several of the songs. Secondary to her exceptionally large voice, Carlile's greatest musical gift is her intuitive and well-timed restraint. It takes great artistry to use one's distinguishable voice in a way that blends so well with the background, and Carlile's contributions to this disc manifest exactly that. "If I Go, I'm Goin" (purchase/download
) is enough to make a listener wish Isakov and Carlile would just do a record full of duets. But it's their collaboration on Leonard Cohen's "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" (purchase/download
), which is the most telling.
Displaying creative intuition on one's own original songs is one thing. Re-interpreting another songwriter's masterpiece in a way which breathes new life and meaning into it, is another. Cover songs can be just cover songs or they can be songs spotlighted for their timeless, universal meaning. The light Isakov shines on one of Cohen's lesser-covered tunes only serves to underscore his own artistry. If this is what Isakov does with a "breakthrough" album, there's no telling what kind of intuition his work will uncover when he's on album number 10 or 20.