There’s a whole boatload of Bon Iver-imitating solo folk acts out there at the moment, and upon a cursory glance, one may unfairly toss Gregory Alan Isakov under that stereotyping bus. However, he’s far superior to the many copycats on the market right now, and This Empty Northern Hemisphere, his fourth studio album, is really tremendous.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but now based in Colorado, Isakov’s career has been a real slow burner, but having now toured with Rodrigo Y Gabriela amongst others, his stock in the musical world appears to be rising. And rightly so.
Whilst in many respects conforming to the folk archetype (a singer-songwriter who plays guitar, dresses oddly) Isakov’s songwriting skill elevates him above the pack. This record is a fabulous listen from start to finish, and at the core of it are some wonderfully woven lyrics.
Take this example, from ‘Words’: Words mean more at night/Light means more.
It’s a simple yet profound hook, and one which typifies Isakov’s unique, beguiling lyrical style. In an era where songwriting pretension seems to have hit an all-time high, this South African-American offers a refreshing blast of philosophical yet understated lyrics. This causes us to consider the belief that Isakov has in his work: he doesn’t feel the need to dress it up in fancy vocabulary or untidy syntax, simply allowing the words to sink in rather than forcing them upon the listener.
Of course, what helps the communication of these brilliant lyrics is Isakov’s voice. It’s not the most far-reaching nor the most powerful, but it’s a distinctive tenor which gels brilliantly with the orchestral compositions of some of his tracks. The guitar which Isakov strums throughout comes through clearly, and the use of strings, so often a hallmark of saccharine mass-produced ’emotion’, is deftly handled. The mix on the album is spot on and allows Isakov to shine rather than overwhelming his intimate vocals with studio-ized orchestra backing or a mountain of effects. What makes This Empty Northern Hemisphere so enjoyable is the facility of its composition and the simplicity of its execution.
Although he has been releasing records since 2003, Gregory Alan Isakov is still a relatively unknown quantity. After this record, however, surely he can’t remain outside our consciousnesses for very much longer.
Sickest tracks: ‘Words’, ‘This Empty Northern Hemisphere’, ‘Dandelion Wine’, ‘That Moon Song’
If you like this, you’ll also like: Pneumonia – Whiskeytown, I See A Darkness – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Please Come Home – Dustin Kensrue
This article can also be found on Lacou.com