Album Review: Jason Boland & the Stragglers – ‘The Light Saw Me’

Jason boland the light saw me

You mean to tell me that the first album in over three years from Jason Boland and the Stragglers – a concept album based around a 19th century Texas-dwelling cowboy who gets abducted by aliens and ends up transported to his home state 100 years into the future, inspired by a real-life story of a rumored UFO crash – is only good enough for a December release, after a ton of year-end lists have already been published?

I mean, if you have no clue what I’m talking about, I guess I get the lack of hype for this release thus far. Jason Boland and the Stragglers are a long-running Red Dirt outfit that have been around for over 20 years and, at this point, comprise Boland and bassist Grant Tracy of its original 1998 incarnation. We all have a tendency to look upon bands past a certain point of their careers as not deserving of the same attention as the up-and-comers, and that is a disappointing sin we’re all guilty of from time to time. Now, for me, they’ve always been a band with a ton of killer songs and even some equally killer albums – especially in Rancho Alto, Pearl Snaps, and Dark and Dirty Mile – but also some inconsistent ones that have kept them from being an all-time favorite of mine, even if I do greatly respect their legacy within and contributions to the Red Dirt scene. Still, the concept behind their newest album sounded interesting, even if December usually is considered a dead period alongside January for new releases.

And after a good ten or so listens with this project, I’m of two minds on it. On one hand, if the concept I described sounds a little off-putting, know that it’s less a sci-fi adventure and more of a religious experience or sonic revelation without getting overly preachy or weird about it, save for an interlude in “Transition In” that does push this project a bit over the edge by getting a bit too literal with UFO studies that I think one might have to be high to appreciate. It’s more of an album centered around themes and ideas of isolationism, fear of the unknown, and faith, where the actual plot feels perfunctory and the album works more as a commentary on personal beliefs and experiences. And, I think it’s actually to the album’s benefit as a whole. If anything, I was reminded, oddly enough, of Emily Scott Robinson’s American Siren from earlier this year and that album’s own examination of the potential beauty within sin and shame. And while this album isn’t quite as focused on that, it is, like that album, focused on finding a new religion and faith that one can call their own – note even the multiple callbacks and references to Hank Williams seeing “the light.”

Granted, that also means I wouldn’t call quite call this album the grandiose concept album it’s trying to be, but it’s also not a case of a concept album needing every separate part to work as a whole, either, unlike, say, Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, also from earlier this year. For context, the general plot is that this cowboy is chosen by the aliens to ride with them through space after sighting their UFO, causing doubt from others within his time about what he saw, prompting him to embark on his grand adventure as a way of proving them wrong before finding himself back home 100 years later without anyone to tell of his revelation. If I’m looking for the main driving points or anchors of the project, it’d probably be in “A Tornado & the Fool,” the title track, “Straight Home,” and the interludes, and aside from those interludes, the album’s standalone songs function effectively even without the greater context.

There’s also a Bob Childers cover of “Restless Spirits” here that just may provide the heart and soul of the album by framing music as a religious experience, and there’s a great ‘70s-inspired rattle and warmth to the tones of “Here For You” … along with hackneyed references to the space-age plot that kind of feel ridiculous and detract from the main point; again, it all feels inessential to what the album is really trying to say. If anything, the two main tracks that spell out the album’s subtext entirely are the opener, “Terrifying Nature,” and another interlude in “Transmission Out,” with everything else running parallel to the themes and ideas present but also willing to plot courses of its own … for better and worse. “Future” and “Straight Home” both try to incorporate modern social commentary into the mix while meandering to do so effectively. But there’s also “A Place to Stay,” where the cowboy is now living in a new and strange time yet still on familiar land trying to find a new place to call home now that everyone he once knew has passed away. And I like that it questions if his big adventure was really worth it to him in finding personal fulfillment at the cost of, well, alienating others, so to say, along with noting that even if it was, his wild desperation for a greater truth shouldn’t be looked upon as a sin. Faith requires that wild leap into the unknown, after all, and its purpose and worth are completely up to us.

And yet, ultimately, part of me just wants to forgo the theme entirely and note that on a compositional level, this is the band’s tightest and most robust set of songs in nearly a decade. It’s not the synth-driven, futuristic-sounding odyssey one might expect from the concept, but again, not only wouldn’t that really work for a rough-edged, rich vocalist like Jason Boland, the actual plot is just there to support the message. So there’s still that ramshackle, Texas-inspired palette of rough acoustics, fiddle, and pedal steel to carry and support the mix, but there’s also touches of atmospherics and reverb to better flesh out some incredibly potent grooves here. In fact, this is arguably the most groove-heavy the band has ever gotten, and with Shooter Jennings co-producing the project, there’s enough of a scuzzier edge added to the electric guitars to give tracks like “Straight Home” and “A Tornado & the Fool” a ton of firepower, especially the latter track with that explosive closing solo. I do have my slight nitpicks with the production as a whole, in that I’d say Boland always sounds a shade too quiet in the mix when his voice could command the entire project, and that outside of “A Tornado & the Fool,” we don’t really get those moments on the project that really open up and better support the project. There was some serious potential here for so much more in that regard, and though, again, the title track and “Future” sport some mightily catchy grooves, I do think there was room to grow here.

Still, even in terms of blazing, Texas-inspired country-rock, there’s enough rollicking bounce and sizzle to the title track, “Terrifying Nature,” “Future,” “Straight Home” and “Restless Spirits” to cut regardless. And in terms of straightforward, no-frills traditional country music, “Restless Spirits” does a legend proud and “A Place to Stay” right afterwards is also plenty rich with its supple reverb augmenting its atmospheric yet crystal-clear tone and gentle waltz cadence. Honestly, short as it feels, it’s just a solid-sounding country album with a few biting rockers throw in to boot, meaning that it’s not really that far removed from the band’s wheelhouse as a whole. Ultimately, though, while I wouldn’t say The Light Saw Me quite fully succeeds at being the fleshed out concept project it was intended to be, it is arguably the band’s most ambitious and passionate project since Dark & Dirty Mile, at least. Consistency has always been my personal biggest issue, and yet with The Light Saw Me, Boland and the Stragglers made one of their most focused projects to date. I can’t say it’s for everyone, but I can say it’s gone criminally ignored thus far – and whether that’s due to the release date or ageism or something else entirely, that needs to be fixed.

Grade: 8/10

  • Favorite tracks: “A Tornado & the Fool,” “Terrifying Nature,” “The Light Saw Me,” “Future,” “Restless Spirits,” “A Place to Stay”
  • Least favorite track: “Here For You”

Buy or stream the album

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