Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
It’s not often that artists take a philosophical approach to their craft.
For much of the 2010s, Texas singer/songwriter Jason Eady’s approach was minimalist, reliant on acoustic-only arrangements and bare-bones production to sell the real heart of his material – his lyrics and themes. Granted, it’s also easy to argue that having a philosophy toward a craft is another way of operating on a formula, and why would any artist want to do that? Of course, that’s a fine line that tests the limits between objectivity and subjectivity, and even Eady himself seemed to answer those criticisms with 2018’s more jubilant I Travel On.
But for those who thought Eady’s past work was fine as it was (like me), underneath its simplistic packaging, Eady had a way of conveying messages in some of the most nuanced respects, easily making him one of the best songwriters in modern country music. And if I’m looking for the best evidence of that, I’m turning to 2014’s Daylight & Dark.
Like I Travel On, Daylight & Dark was another moment where Eady shifted artistic direction. 2012’s AM Country Heaven was more successful, but its songs often lacked the same distinctive presence as Eady’s earlier work, eschewing rougher-edged tendencies in favor of something more accessible; not an inherent flaw, but one that didn’t mesh with Eady’s style as well. Considering, however, that Eady cited Vern Gosdin and Don Williams as inspirations for Daylight & Dark, not only did he get back on the right track – he made his finest album to date.
With every listen, though, I struggle to really encapsulate why that is. Perhaps the grandest element of this album is that it’s not grand at all; it’s the common story of the lonely, everyday man who drinks and stumbles his way through life – one of country music’s core themes, really, both in song and beyond the art. Daylight & Dark isn’t a traditional concept album, nor is it necessarily even Eady’s story. The songs work in tandem with one another, yet feel distinctly disconnected in their actual settings. And unlike most albums in this vein, there’s no real resolution or moral judgment surrounding its characters or its framing. There’s upbeat songs about slugging whiskey and songs about nursing those hangovers, yet the focus always seems to be on the inner moral conflicts surrounding those decisions.
Ultimately, it’s as if Eady designs his own code to live by for his characters on a track like “Temptation.” There’s joy that shines through in upbeat drinking songs like “Ok Whiskey” and “One, Two … Many,” and even when the characters have to face up to the consequences of their decisions on the title track or “Whiskey & You,” there’s empathy felt in spite of it.
Of course, part of why the songs nail that tricky emotional balance of empathy and insufferable is because of Eady himself. He’s not a great singer, and those moments requiring him to offer a little more charisma in “Ok Whiskey” and “One, Two … Many” definitely scan as weaker moments on the album, but his emotional range is profound. There’s a conversational element to his delivery, which, in keeping with the spirit of country music, helps that he always sounds like the everyday man who made some bad decisions and paid the price for it; not necessarily songs that make for likable characters, but ones that are relatable and filled with empathy. And perhaps that’s why there’s an odd lack of judgment felt on this album. It’s bleak, but ultimately he’s not going to have these characters admonish themselves when that’s likely not how the situation would work out anyway. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to find that happy ending, like how he can tell what a lonely woman is going through as she sits at an empty booth in “Late Night Diner,” because he’s been the kind of guy to put his own lover through hell.
Plus, that line between virtue and vice is tough for anyone to follow in any situation, which is the main point of struggle of “Liars & Fools” and the incredible title track. And though more people are likely familiar with songwriter Chris Stapleton’s take on his own “Whiskey & You,” I’d have to say Eady’s is the definitive version, if only because raw, unbridled consequence can hit so much harder when it doesn’t sound as nice.
And that dark loneliness permeates and underscores every inch of this record. Again, it’s bleak, but what can be said about the production is how sharp it is. Every swell and sound simmers in the mix, the bass guitars have a growling presence, the fiddles cry, the acoustic guitars are mellow to fit the subject material, and all that emptiness in the other departments means there’s room for the atmosphere to really settle. The melody lines feel familiar, but decidedly country. It’s not the flashiest listen, but it’s perfect for what it is – a tried-and-true take on a core country theme that, at least for me, deserves to be the gold standard for albums in this vein. Because let’s be honest – many albums indulging in retro tendencies have adopted this motif since this particular’s album release, and many more likely will in the decade ahead (though, with the way things are right now, maybe not for the rest of 2020). That’s the beauty of Daylight & Dark – it’s not neotraditional country or outlaw country or any other offshoot of the term – it’s an album emblematic of country music in its rawest form, and remains, to this day, a favorite country album of mine.