The short version: Jason Eady’s ‘I Travel On’ may lack the lush and poetic lyrical details of past projects, but that’s kind of the point.
The long version: While critics should never assume that artists are actually going to listen to what they have to say, it’s telling what happens when artists act on those criticisms.
Granted, for as much as critics have praised Jason Eady for being one of the best songwriters in the independent country circuit, the most common criticism of his work has been that it’s too sedate. While I understand this criticism, I’ve never agreed with it considering his lyrical compositions often more than make up for it.
Perhaps Eady has taken that criticism to heart though, as his new album, I Travel On was reportedly a lighter affair, with more of a focus on acoustics and upbeat tempos than serious subject matter. Considering he was also bringing in bluegrass maestros, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley onboard, if nothing else, I Travel On at least looked like the kind of album that non-Eady fans could hear first if they wanted a good introductory point into his music.
Up until I sat down with this album to give it a critical review, I was admittedly lukewarm on the album, therefore turning the tables on who had criticisms for Eady this time around. With time though, I’ve come to respect I Travel On for what it is even if it’s not among Eady’s best albums. It’s not meant to reach that level, and if anything, hopefully the looser, more fun nature of this album at least brings a few new fans along for the ride.
As you can probably guess by now, the biggest change comes through in the instrumentation and production, with Eady swapping out the pedal steel for more fiddle, banjo and dobro without outright calling it bluegrass. If anything, the compositions are certainly more lively. Opener “I Lost My Mind In Carolina” is a whirlwind of a track, and “Pretty When I Die” has to be the closest thing to a bluegrass crossover here. There’s a good amount of variety too, with certain songs like “Now or Never” focusing on heavier grooves while “Always A Woman” wraps minor chords around a potent melody.
Of course, all of this does come at a slight cost of Eady’s lyricism, and that’s essentially what keeps me from loving this album. Eady’s strengths have always come from the lush details he brings into his songs, whereas here, the messages still come across albeit on a more basic level.
Still, there is a running theme to I Travel On at least. Eady approaching his age is something he’s done before such as on his self-titled album last year in the form of “40 Years,” but here, he’s questioning his abilities and the journey of life itself. The most direct confrontation of this theme comes from “Pretty When I Die” where he expresses his desire to explore the uncertainties of life instead of living it safely, but it comes with the realization that really, he doesn’t know quite where he’s going, and that’s part of the fun at this point.
“The Climb” furthers this by blatantly expressing the confusion of where to go in the journey, and other songs such as “Calaveras County” and “I Lost My Mind In Carolina” act as thematic rest stops for the narrator to collect his barrings and reflect on the journey. Even if I think the song is saccharine for Eady’s standards, “Happy Man” addresses the other side of the theme by stating that even if he has a lot of traveling still to do, he’s also lived a better life than he probably ever dreamed of. Perhaps that’s why the album is a bit lighter overall, because Eady has already scaled that mountain and is traveling on more for discovery than for answers.
Vocally, Eady doesn’t really do “fun” well. His voice is best for more reserved material, but at least there’s some doses of humor or light-hearted fun evident in the lyrical content. “Now Or Never” and “That’s Alright” are fairly goofy, almost inessential cuts by all means, although the technical instrumental prowess on both tracks is quite good.
Oddly enough, the one track here that sticks out is also the highlight, “She Had To Run,” mostly because it’s the one track here that’s up to par with Eady’s writing ability. Supposedly based on a true story, this song finds this character traveling for a different reason, and like any good Eady cut, the details that flesh it out are stunning, as she can’t even bring herself to trust the man helping her escape because she’s been that badly damaged by her abuser. Next to “Always A Woman,” it’s the darkest song on this album, but the slight detour helps give the album a balanced weight and provide some link to his past projects.
And that’s the thing about I Travel On – it’s an album that really doesn’t have anything wrong with it. On a technical level, the instrumentation is downright excellent, rich and warm. But it is meant to be a detour, and as someone who prefers Eady the songwriter … well, again, I won’t say that he necessarily does “fun” quite as well, but still, I Travel On is meant to be a warm, fun project and nothing more. In that case, it succeeds, and even if it lacks the highlights from past projects, there are still a few excellent cuts here. If anything, it at least highlights his versatility as an artist.
- Favorite tracks: “She Had To Run,” “Always A Woman,” “I Lost My Mind In Carolina,” “Pretty When I Die”
- Least favorite track: “That’s Alright”