Few studio albums have had a birth process like Jimbo Mathus new release, Dark Night of the Soul. To create his ninth album, the singer-songwriter spent nearly a year going to Dial Back Sound Studio, near his home in Taylor, Mississippi, to work on new tunes. Dial Back Sound, however, isnâ€™t just any conveniently located studio, but one operated by Fat Possum Recordsâ€™ Bruce Watson, who offered Mathus this extended opportunity to create the follow-up to his highly-regarded Fat Possum debut White Buffalo.
Like having a regular gig at a neighborhood bar, Mathus would drop by the studio every couple of weeks and hash out song ideas with engineer/instrumentalist Bronson Tew. Mathus ended up with around 40 songs and Watson heard them all. â€œHe acted as my editor,â€ Mathus explains. â€œI really trust him. He would come in and say, â€˜I like this or could we change a little of that?â€™â€
Mathus enjoyed the casual, low-pressure studio environment but also felt challenged to bring new material to the table every week. â€œI would pull out scraps of paper from my wallet that normally I would dump in the trash and those would be the ones that Bruce liked.â€ The ones Watson would gravitate to be the darker songs â€” the ones, Mathus confides, he would typically keep private. â€œSo collaboratively,â€ he says, â€œwe brought them to life.â€Â This process resulted in his most personal and hardest rocking album to date. While on earlier releases, the Mississippi-bred Mathus tended to showcase his encyclopedic facility with Southern roots music, this time, however, he really wanted to play his songs unselfconsciously â€” â€œletting them just fall off the bone.â€
This emphasis on â€œmore ultra chrome and less sepia tones,â€ as Mathus calls it, arrives on the title track that opens the album. Fiery electric guitars match the artistâ€™s emotionally wrenching vocals as he pleads to be taken to his â€œsweet solution.â€ A similar search for salvation fuels the impassioned soul-rocker â€œWhite Angel,â€ while a more rollicking spirit imbues the â€™70s Southern rock-flavored â€œRock and Roll,â€ where the piano is pounded as hard as the guitars. â€œShine Like a Diamond,â€ a love ode to Mathusâ€™ wife Jennifer, sparkles like an old Van Morrison-style gem, complete with some â€œsha-la-laâ€ near the end.
Dark Night grows funkier in its second half with tracks like â€œFire in the Canebrakeâ€ and â€œCasey Caught the Cannonball.â€ Mathusâ€™ take on the Casey Jones legend (which he wrote from facts he got off of a roadside marker) conjures up memories of The Band, as does another Dixie-based tale, â€œHawkeye Jordan.â€ The album ends in a rather dark place with the closing tracks: the junkie lament â€œMedicineâ€ and eerie eulogy â€œButcher Bird.â€
On most of Dark Nightâ€™s tracks, Mathusâ€™ acoustic guitar is surrounded by the electric guitar played by his longtime sideman Matt Pierce and pal Eric â€œRoscoeâ€ Ambel.Â The albumâ€™s raw, rock sound arose from the fact that most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio with Mathusâ€™ band, the Tri-State Coalition, which he found â€œvery liberating way of doing it.â€ “The intensity youâ€™re hearing on this album,â€ he proclaims, â€œis the spirit of a band that is putting its shit on the line.â€
While Mathus plays less of the musical historian role on his new album, his love and knowledge of roots music still radiates throughout his songs. â€œKnowing about some banjo part on a Gus Cannon record informs me on writing a song like â€˜Dark Night of the Soul,â€™ believe it or not,â€ Mathus reveals. â€œItâ€™s all in my frame of reference and my musical DNA.â€
This musical DNA has been in him since birth. His father and relatives were all skilled musicians who filled the house with old folk, country and blues tunes. By the age of eight, Mathus was joining them on mandolin and by his teenage years had learned guitar and piano. High school led to playing in punk and new wave bands, the most notable being Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves and The End, with future Oblivian Jack Yarber. Post high school, Mathus studied Philosophy at Mississippi State University before leaving to travel around America. In doing so he worked various jobs, including an influential stint as a barge tankerman on the mighty Mississippi River. Settling in Chapel Hill, N.C., he drummed in the cult rock band Metal Flake Mother prior to starting the Squirrel Nut Zippers. This ahead-of-its-time retro roots band scored a hit with â€œHotâ€ and performed at President Clintonâ€™s second Inauguration and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Following the Zippersâ€™ split, Mathus worked with such noted artists such as Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello, and collaborated with North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart in the South Memphis String Band. He also recorded his own albums (including one dedicated to his childhood nanny Rosetta Patton, the daughter of Delta blues icon Charley Patton).
With the South being so central to his life, itâ€™s no surprise that Mathus and his band are very popular there. â€œI could stay in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana and never have to leave,â€ he admits, â€œbut the point is I want people to hear this album â€” to bring a little gris-gris to the rest of America.â€