If we’re being honest with ourselves, independent country music has its own formulas to attract fans – just as mainstream country music does to ignite trends and keep them afloat. For example, the retro-leaning acts that try to make the old new again right down to the recording style, packaging, and album artwork that, at its best, can offer a new perspective on something familiar, and at its worst, indulge in heavy fetishism.
And bordering on the edges of country music is its Americana cousin, full of acts that engage in lyrically rich and overwritten metaphorical works that favor a minimalist production setting so as to respect the power of the song. On some level, speaking as a guy who enjoys a good slow burn of a record, I enjoy a lot of that material. But the easy criticism is that it’s boring and dull, enough to where it would take an extremely sharp writer to make up for all of it.
In other words, the traditional criticism lobbied against Jason Eady is one I’ve understood but have never fully agreed with, even despite an album that seemed to answer those criticisms to a mixed extent in 2018’s I Travel On. For one, his choice to embrace harder country tones often enriches his melodic structure and lets a lot of his work really simmer and feel intimate – particularly in his pedal steel and fiddle work. Plus, his poetry has always been of a simpler variety, elevated more by the details of hardscrabbled living that stem from direct experience. It’s not neotraditional country or Americana, it’s simply … country music, and at its purest and finest, at that.
Eady’s newest album, To the Passage of Time, is mostly a return to his older miminalist style evident on albums like 2014’s Daylight & Dark and 2017’s self-titled release, with a little more of a playful edge balanced against his excellently mature and nuanced moments. And yet, even despite this very much finding Eady operating in his comfort zone once again, there’s something missing in the overall presentation that makes it hit with a little less impact than his previous works. It’s still enjoyable and features what is possibly his best-ever song, but To the Passage of Time is the first Eady album that finds him operating too much on a formula.
Now, on some level, describing the overall sound is a moot point for anyone familiar with Eady’s work. But it’s the production that’s always allowed it to really shine even despite the minimalist approach, letting the full and organically rich tones courtesy of the acoustic guitars and touches of fiddle, pedal steel, and especially the mandolin work really seep in and have their time in the spotlight. Because if there’s anything adapted from the faster-paced I Travel On, it’s a welcome choice to allow the technical prowess of the players here to shine, particularly in the closing outros of songs like “Back to Normal” and “Saturday Night,” especially when they lean well on minor tones.
Plus, Eady has always been the sort of plainspoken poet that’s benefited from the simpler approach. He’s never been a technically great singer, but he manages to convey the right amount of quiet intensity to really command the room and let the audience know that what he sings about is what he knows. Having Courtney Patton for background vocal duties always adds a nice touch, too, especially when she slips in for the majority of a song dedicated to her on “Nothing On You.” And while the stripped-back, mostly acoustic approach places a heavy emphasis on the writing, it also places one on Eady himself that he handles excellently.
Of course, there’s that aforementioned easy criticism again: the one that says how these arrangements are tasteful but also unspectacular and lacking. And if there was ever a point I’d be slightly inclined to agree with it, it’d be for this album, which doesn’t push the compositions or melody lines as hard as past projects or adds in those little touches like before. This really is a back-to-the-basics project, and it’s hard not to hear the subtle, sunny fiddle pickups anchoring the chipper melody and hook of “Possibilities” and think of how this record could have pushed a little harder to be a little more memorable or not feel like such a slow burn at points.
Granted, there’s also the easy counterpoint, in that Eady’s writing usually makes up for it … and to a large extent, that’s also true here, even if I’d say this is a tad weaker for his standards across the board in that department, too. But first, let’s discuss the easy exception to all of that: “French Summer Sun.” Without spoiling the main plot, I will say it’s a war-themed song with a concept loosely based around Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in its depiction of alternative timelines. And in both cases, the choice to humanize every character on display and lend them their own roles within the story without regard to keeping things short for the sake of time or length is what drives the endings of each work home and adds that needed richness. Beautiful stuff, not just for Eady’s standards, but for all of country music in 2021.
And yet against those buzzy acoustics that favor only what’s written and leaves the listener hanging on to every word, I’m left wishing Eady relied more on narrative overall here. To be clear, what we get instead is still great. His choice to constantly reference the hardbitten maturity and responsibility that comes with growing older reminds me of another Jason – Isbell, that is – and between the hope and optimism juxtaposed against the haggard edges of “Possibilities,” the choice to settle down and find home on “Gainesville,” and the uncertainties of what’s still ahead that creep through on “These Things,” these are all songs one expects Eady to nail with frightening relatability. And he does, enough so in that, with “Luxury of Dreaming,” about a housewife going through the motions of middle age looking for the same inner peace, it’s just as much her story (or ours) as it is his. And again, he sells it in a language easy to understand.
But I don’t know. There’s also tracks that just seem to either veer off course or paint in unusually broad strokes for Eady’s standards. “My Best Friend” takes a page from James McMurtry’s recent “Canola Fields” in looking back on a relationship that never was from an older perspective, only it’s missing the richer background details to really make the main sentiment stick. And while I do appreciate the addition of some needed variety in darker cuts like “Back to Normal” and “Saturday Night,” the former is basically a pandemic song that feels underwritten outside of that context, and the latter tries to go for shit-kicking ambitions in its depiction of a seedy honky-tonk, that, beyond missing a main punchline, shows how Eady just isn’t the type of performer who can pull it off convincingly.
Now, it’s still a great album, but it’s also the type of album one expects from Eady at this point, for better and worse. But if the crime is sticking to what works, it’s understandable, given that Eady’s work has always felt naturally aimed at an older, more mature audience. And between songs like “French Summer Sun” and “Possibilities,” he hasn’t lost a bit of his edge. In other words, it’s still well-worth checking out.
- Favorite tracks: “French Summer Sun,” “Possibilities,” “These Things,” “The Luxury of Dreaming,” “Gainesville”
- Least favorite track: “My Best Friend”