The short version: With ‘After The Fire’ and ‘The Wanting,’ Cody Jinks shows listeners his dark side in ways he hasn’t before. But while these albums are, essentially, both sides of the same coin, they feel like extended ways to make one point.
After The Fire:
- Favorite tracks: “Ain’t A Train,” “William and Wanda,” “Someone To You,” “Dreamed With One,” “After The Fire”
- Least favorite track: “One Good Decision”
- Rating: 8/10
- Favorite tracks: “Which One I Feed,” “Never Alone Always Lonely,” “Wounded Mind,” “Ramble,” “It Don’t Rain In California”
- Least favorite track: “The Raven and the Dove”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Despite country music seemingly being the one musical genre left to still foster “radio darlings,” its definition of stardom has shifted.
No, some of the biggest names in independent country music aren’t selling or streaming at the same level of country music’s A-list acts, but when they manage to outperform some of the B-list acts, there’s something more happening beneath the surface.
Cody Jinks might not have a No. 1 hit under his bet (or a hit at all), but by all accounts, 2018 was the year he was destined to overtake the country music industry. As a signee to Rounder Records, Jinks released Lifers, his best showing on the country albums chart yet, even if critical reception was mixed, compared to previous Jinks releases. Jinks also held his inaugural “Loud & Heavy Fest” in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. But, as he also found out, the increased exposure can take its toll, mentally.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Jinks, therefore, has given up those dreams, but rather realigned what it means to be a “star.” The focus, first and foremost in country music, is the fans, and when Jinks teased the possible release of two new albums in October, it proved he could still hold attention – just on his own terms.
And now that Jinks is an independent artist again, 2019 can be the year his fire shifts course, rather than completely burn out. And if this sounds like unnecessary background information heading into these two new albums, really, it’s an extended conversation about the crutch of both After The Fire and The Wanting. In some ways, though, I wish these had been bundled together as one double album, because while these are still good albums, they seem to need each other, if only to tie up loose ends and provide a counterbalance to the other.
After The Fire review
To start with After The Fire, it’s fair to say it’s the tamer of the two records – not necessarily the one that lacks the energy of The Wanting or is any less lyrically compelling, but one that feels like the immediate aftermath of Jinks’ realization that stardom isn’t what he thought it’d be; meanwhile, The Wanting is his answer and pledge to move forward with those lessons learned. The tricky part is remembering that these albums are supposed to stand on their own, and I’m not sure they always do.
After The Fire, however, is the album where the production and instrumentation are somewhat dialed back. Aside from the on-point fiddle breakdown in “Ain’t A Train,” or the entirety of the western swing-inspired “Tonedeaf Boogie,” After The Fire is mostly a low-key record, like the immediate burnout of Jinks’ psyche put on display. If anything, it’s the mix balance that’s a bit off, as the drums don’t often sound miked correctly and sit too loud in the mix. Granted, sometimes that can work well in conjunction with other elements. The way they’re set up in the title track alongside the low, simmering acoustics provide a nice warmth to its opening moment. At other times, like on “One Good Decision,” the mix balance can feel a little abrasive, as if it’s trying to oversell a moment.
Otherwise, there’s very little surprises with what After The Fire sounds like – a rich album with strong acoustic grooves, backed by steel and electric guitar and hints of organ and piano around the edges with a rougher quality to support Jinks’ demeanor. And the acoustic guitar really comes through great, especially when balanced against a few rough vocal pickups to give the album an edge without compromising its warmth. “William and Wanda” and “Dreamed With One” are both fairly sparse, especially in comparison to the other tracks. In the case of the former track, it only further serves the lyrical content, and in the case of the latter, it adds a unique sense of mystique that Jinks surprisingly pulls off well. I do wish some of the compositions took more chances to push into some darker territory or push away from some of the cleaner textures that can make this album start to run together after awhile, but that’s only because the foundation is already incredibly solid.
But one could also argue that the main selling point with a Jinks record is both his lyrical content and himself. It wouldn’t be fair to call Jinks “stoic,” though his lack of charm can make the upbeat honky-tonk barn-burner “One Good Decision” feel unconvincing and uncomfortable. If anything, Jinks takes his work seriously, and there’s a rougher tone to his delivery that always suggests he’s got a lot of wisdom (and, consequently, burdens) to share with all of us. Plus, when he’s as good as he is at being that convincing journeyman, one can never doubt his authenticity.
And that’s especially true on After The Fire, an album that finds him defeated with nowhere left to turn. It’d be easy to mistake his delivery on the title track or “Someone To You” as underselling their true sentiments, but from my perspective, they show Jinks doubling-down on a promise one never doubts he intends to keep. There’s a venomous touch to how much he blames himself and lets the audience in on the details on “Tell ‘Em What It’s Like” and “Think Like You Think,” enough to where one could argue this is Jinks at his darkest moment yet.
Of course, if there’s any reason I wish After The Fire and The Wanting had been bundled together as a double album, it’d be for the lyrical consistency. Still, I’m going to keep these discussions separate, but that also means the writing on After The Fire, while certainly potent, can feel a bit clumsy at points. I understand the sentiment behind wanting to start over after a day of regret on “Yesterday Again,” but wouldn’t the optimal decision be to move forward with those lessons learned instead of backward?
On that note, the not-so-subtle point of After The Fire is that Jinks is frustrated, both with the record industry and himself. He’s quick to point out how much he still cares and hasn’t completely lost himself, evident on the title track and “Dreamed With One,” even if that track tilts into fantastical metaphors over the simple focus that otherwise colors this album. There’s also an air of optimism evident on “Ain’t A Train,” only furthered highlighted, once again, by that fantastic fiddle breakdown after the hook.
Jinks, too, pulls no punches in blaming himself for his problems over the past few years – a hungry-eyed artist who wanted to follow in the footsteps of his heroes but may have forgotten the heavy price they paid, also. It isn’t just how Jinks may have neglected his family on the way to wherever he was headed, but also how he depended on alcohol as his vice. The hook of “Think Like You Think,” told from the perspective of Jinks’ wife, Rebecca, is particularly biting, in that case. And when Jinks flips the script to tell the same story from his perspective on “Tell ‘Em What It’s Like,” it reveals a personal side of his we haven’t heard in such raw form before.
Still, regrets and consequences have to come with a resolution to move ahead with lessons learned, and while that’s the underlying point of the album and the background surrounding it, it’s another reason why I wish this was a double album. That’s not to say we don’t get an excellent moment of real reflection on “Someone To You,” especially with that great hook, but when Jinks pats himself on the back for not leaving the bar as a drunken mess to go home to his wife, the scope feels a bit more generic and underserved, lacking the seriousness and nuance of the record’s more biting moments.
On the other hand, even if “William and Wanda” is only loosely connected to the theme of expressing love and gratitude for those who matter to Jinks, it’s still an excellently composed tribute to his grandparents, where one line after another can completely change the meaning of what it’s really about and develop it well.
And, spoiler alert, the tightness of After The Fire is why I’d call it the better of the two Jinks records, even if there’s a moment of clumsiness here and there. The hooks are among Jinks’ best, and even if the sparseness of the album can feel a tad underwhelming, I can’t deny it doesn’t perfectly capture that feeling of Jinks sifting through the ashes of his past to recount what happened, rather than flesh out the present day, thankfully.
The Wanting review
To repeat an earlier point, The Wanting and After The Fire are two sides of the same coin, but both also share their differences, for better or worse.
For starters, The Wanting does carry that added bit of variety to the arrangements and production After The Fire doesn’t, with the focus feeling darker, sharper and a sign of a renewed Jinks ready to move on with a clear mind. Some have argued this comes at the cost of the same well-written tracks After The Fire carries, but for me, The Wanting carries even better tracks than After The Fire; the problem, however, is that The Wanting is a much more inconsistent album, overall.
Again, the mix balance continues to feel off at points, particularly in the drum and percussion lines. The acoustics sound off in “A Bite Of Something Sweet” and resemble a dry live cut, more than anything. The closer, “The Raven and the Dove,” lets everything sit at the front of the mix – acoustic guitars, drums and percussion – and sounds busy, lifeless and dull, but even when it decides to bring in some richer piano, it’s the one instrument that’s buried in the mix, for whatever reason.
Still, The Wanting features more exciting instrumental choices to heighten certain tracks. The punchier, darker bass notes driving “Same Kind Of Crazy As Me” suggest Jinks is in a state of mind one would only like to hear about, rather than experience themselves. “Which One I Feed” features a sharp, unsettling acoustic groove only further bolstered by the reverb-soaked electric guitar simmering in the mix, and when the dobro solo kicks in, “dark and uneasy” don’t feel like adjectives that can do enough justice for the track. “Wounded Mind” and “Ramble,” as is the theme of this record, tell the same story from different angles, with the former track opting for a more abrasive electric guitar to sell the seething frustration underneath, whereas the latter track is gentler, backed by a richer piano line to cast forgiveness from Jinks to himself for his wrongdoing.
Vocally, I could copy and paste whatever I said about Jinks in the above After The Fire review and place it here. Like with the instrumentation and production, though, there’s some slight inconsistencies. Hand Jinks a dark, heavy ballad and he’ll be just fine, but I wasn’t as won over by his lazier, rollicking flow on “Whiskey,” and his upper range isn’t tested well in the chorus of “A Bite Of Something Sweet.” Still, that air of defeat from After The Fire lingers on here. I wouldn’t describe his tone on “Same Kind Of Crazy Of Me” as angry, but there is a tired frustration he shares about the world around him. And like with “Tell ‘Em What It’s Like” and “Think Like You Think” from before, it’s telling where Jinks’ mind has really been over the past few years on “Never Alone Always Lonely,” “Wounded Mine” or “Ramble.” No, the role of the tired artist voicing his problems isn’t exactly a groundbreaking concept, but with Jinks, there’s a sharper specificity to the details where the one-liners can say so much more than they intend. Ironically, too, The Wanting features less co-writes from Jinks, but you’d never be able to tell that from listening to “Which One I Feed,” a track I could describe as cloying or cheesy if the actual imagery and metaphors weren’t so sharp and poignant. Again, too, a track voicing world-weary frustrations with a subtle, seething anger is exactly the kind of track Jinks emotes excellently.
Lyrically, though, the biggest difference between After The Fire and The Wanting is here. Whereas After The Fire feels like Jinks detailing his struggles and how they affect others, in turn making an album for them and not him, The Wanting feels like the focus turns inward toward Jinks’ psyche and how he views these situations. For as gripping as that sounds, though, there’s also some inconsistencies that emerge. “Same Kind Of Crazy As Me” is a track that has been performed numerous times in 2019 to poor results, where an artist voices their frustrations with both sides of the political divide without saying anything meaningful. To echo a past criticism of After The Fire, what good is a complaint without an action to bring the change you want to see? Granted, the entire point of both albums is that Jinks is legitimately too tired and scared to even know where to begin to make those changes, but without the finer details of After The Fire to point back to, it leaves The Wanting feeling a bit lacking in scope sometimes.
If anything, too, the details just don’t fluctuate as much on this album. “Whiskey” follows the album’s main theme fairly well, but when it ends with Jinks simply drinking his troubles away, it makes it hard to sympathize with him knowing he later takes action to amend those regrets. And for as much as Jinks warns us that he’s been through something fierce on “Where Even Angels Fear To Fly,” without the grittier details, it falls flat, not helped by the brighter tones that give the track a celebratory feel (a bad contradiction, really). And considering “The Raven and the Dove” rehashes points that both “Which One I Feed” and “Ramble” said better, I’m left wishing “Ramble” had been the closing moment, as it would have made much more of an impact.
Still, even if The Wanting doesn’t connect as well, there’s still outliers that work well for what they are. “It Don’t Rain In California” fits the album’s theme of darkness and despair quite well, but it’s also an excellent story song about coming to terms with problems we need to own up to, if not for ourselves then for others. Even with that said, however, The Wanting features more blemishes than we’ve come to expect with a Jinks record, enough to where I’d say it’s his weakest album yet, even if it boasts some of his best songs yet and connects very well with After The Fire. Sadly, though, these are two separate albums meant to stand on their own, and while After The Fire never wears out its welcome in spite of its slight inconsistencies, The Wanting feels slightly more scattershot and bloated. But these also feel like albums Jinks needed to make, if only to move ahead knowing now how to better balance his life as an artist and as a husband and father; nothing was left unsaid. And even if these two albums feel like transitional records, the foundation for what makes Jinks such a compelling performer is still solid.