There’s no way James Elkington could have known about the trauma that we’d all be feeling in the midst of a pandemic when he tracked the 11 songs on his sophomore “solo” release Ever-Roving Eye. But somehow he put out a record that is balm for the weary and fretful soul, just when we need it.
Elkington, a renowned guitarist and enigmatic songwriter with a soothing baritone singing voice, is a longtime English ex-pat who’s an indespensible part of the Chicago music scene, and well beyond it, actually. He has contributed his considerable musical and technical skills to projects by acts based in Chicago (Jeff Tweedy, Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback) and far from it (Richard Thompson, Laetitia Sadier, Michael Chapman, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley, Nap Eyes).
James has long garnered comparisons to Bert Jansch, and if you want to see why, check out the fifth track “Rendlesham Way” with longtime colleague Nick Macri taking the role of Danny Thompson with an intricate and complementary acoustic bass line to Elkington’s fleet and complex fingerpicking. Just the two of them, but it’s enough.
On most of the rest of the record though, you’ll find a fuller ensemble that includes Macie Stewart (violin), Lia Kohl (cello), Spencer Tweedy (drums), The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman (vocals), and Paul VonMertens on woodwinds. And no shortage of guitar licks from Elkington ranging from sublime to dazzling, quite often within adjacent bars.
So, I said this album is a balm for the soul, and sonically it is. But depending on your temperament, if you’re able to decipher the cryptic lyrics, which are not exactly out front in the mix, you may be less than comforted. Let’s just say some might consider them dark. There’s a lot of death here, to be blunt. Starting with the first track “Nowhere time.” Here’s the third verse:
You’ll be underground in no uncertain terms
And dozing with the worms
There’s a master plan somebody understands
And I wish that one was me
And sleep as a stand-in for death, like in the second song, “Sleeping Me Awake.” It’s an upbeat shuffle with lovely fingerpicked guitar and thudding tom-tom with occasional peppy handclaps, and lyrics like this: “When the moon-cloud of fatigue is drawing me/The dreamer starts to shake/And it’s sleeping me awake.”
“It feels like I got older and old friends kept their youth,” Elkington croons in the lovely lilting ballad “Leopards Lay Down.” Musically this one reminds me of David Crosby’s “Where Will I Be” on the classic album he made with Graham Nash.
Speaking of classic rock and rockers, there’s what could be taken as an answer to the Rolling Stones – or maybe just to Boomers in general – in “Late Jim’s Lament.” “Time might be on your side but it’s never been on mine,” he sings at one point. This song is the album’s literal and figurative centerpiece, a summing up of the record’s themes of the inexorable passage of time and inevitability of death. It all gets quite meta, in fact, like in this verse:
My cryptifying nature’s getting worse
My dying words are trapped inside a tunnel of blank verse
But no matter how I drive I know I can’t outdrive the hearse!
It’s sooner in my mind and getting later all the time.
The instrumental and lyrical riches of Ever-Roving Eye might just last me through the end of this miserable “social distancing” lockdown, here in the late winter and early spring of 2020. Whether your medicine is Yo-Yo Ma’s solo cello offerings or aggressive punk rock or this kind of pointed folk-rock, it’s uncompromising art like this that will get us through the COVID-19 pandemic with at least a shred of our sanity.
(Paradise of Bachelors, 2020)