It makes all the sense in the world that Gregory Alan Isakov owns and tends a farm on Boulder, Colorado’s outskirts when he’s not touring. He’s a man who appreciates the peace of mind one finds only in nature; "Nature is a reference point for sanity, I draw a lot from it, just like every other living thing," he mentioned in an interview back in 2016. You get the sense of his ideology listening Evening Machines, his latest album, a piece of work written in the language of the natural world.
Isakov strikes as too humble to claim fluency in that language, but he’s well versed enough. Environmental imagery peppers the album, from the earth beneath us all the way up to the galaxy. "Those bright crooked stars, man they’re howlin’ out," he muses on the record’s closing track, "Wings in All Black." "Thought you read them all right, had them all figured out." Whoever he’s singing to misapprehends the words that’re written into the sky, but Isakov’s not rubbing it in. He knows that mistaking what nature has to say to us is remarkably easy. There’s truth buried deep in the out of doors, at least so he tells us on "Too Far Away," reminiscing about his efforts at finding that truth out. ("Me, I’ve been fine / I work most of the time / Digging for secrets deep in the ground.")
Evening Machines, in keeping with its backdrop as well as Isakov’s agrarian interests, is simple to the ear. That simple presentation leaves nothing for Isakov to hide behind. He lets the stripped down nuances of his lyrics and musicianship speak for themselves; the results are deceptively straightforward but immense in their complexity (though on the subject of scale, Evening Machines could do with one less track; it’s not bloated, but feels in need of a minor trim). Even less practiced, self-taught guitarists can probably pick the chords on "Wings in All Black" with little trouble, but getting them just right—making the notes and words hang in the air like echoes with each passing verse—is a whole other matter. Isakov is the sort of artist who reminds listeners that important music can be important without having to say so.
The gravity of his work discards the layers of pretense that often mute otherwise well intended indie folk; his honesty leaves Evening Machines in a state of raw vulnerability from start to finish. Nature might supply Isakov his motifs, but the work is all about introspection. The songs suggest abiding regret over past relationships, words unspoken and varying loves, whether lost or knotted. Sometimes, the love is the love of another: "I am brambles / but I am tangled in your love," he murmurs on "Bullet Holes," a track suggesting violence but ending on a mending of old wounds. Sometimes the love is love of, unsurprisingly, nature, because even our connection to the land we live on can sever or experience seismic alterations of one type or another.
Take "Caves," one of Evening Machine’s best tracks, where he discusses his old fondness for caves, recalling how the "bright hollow moon" would show "our insides on our outsides" after walking out of caverns and emerging under the setting sun. There’s a somber umbrella of worry opening slowly inside him as the song progresses, as he goes from caves to the heavens and gains a new appreciation for the world above. ("Now I think I like birds / See them fly from St. Paul / And I go running when the night aches / I hear her every time she calls.") It’s a song about change, and how painful change can be; we never hear why Isakov came to lose his taste for caves, but he does ask his audience to "hear the stars do their talking.” He’d rather not speak and listen to the world instead.
The sky is a recurring image throughout Evening Machines, as seen in the title of "Wings in All Black," the lyrics of "Caves" ("I used to love caves / Stumble out into that pink sky"), or the lyrics of "Dark, Dark, Dark," where he sings about Maria, who’s "got wings, she’s got legs for the sea." Maybe Isakov has destinations in mind other than the open plain; maybe he’s a drifter, or a bit of a loner. The album cover hints at the truth, depicting Isakov keeping vigil among fields of grass, staring ahead at a gathering storm, but even so he remains an elusive, almost capricious figure. He likes his quiet, and he’s clearly prone to reflection, but in Evening Machines he finds himself at home, contemplating his past and present in modest spirit. It’s an album of small intentions with a grand sweep, intimate and boundless at the same time.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Listen to Gregory Alan Isakov’s 2013 Daytrotter session below: