Evolution is desirable for any musical act, especially one established more than a decade ago. One would think that listeners would prefer an update in sound from time to time to keep them interested. Yet if Gregory Alan Isakov played his 2003 debut album Rust Colored Stones with his 2018 album Evening Machines, listeners would hear little fundamental evolution during the 15-year period between the two albums.
And this is actually a good thing, as proven by Isakov’s growing fame and countless fans.
To understand how Isakov has effectively defied convention by sticking to the original conception of his artistry, it must be understood that he is as much a poet as he is a musician. Possessing all the lyrical wit and fervor of Walt Whitman or John Keats in tandem with his musicianship, cultivated over a lifetime of making music, Isakov is an artist of many trades. His lyrics have always been the most important part of his music. It doesn’t hurt that they are infinitely compatible with his sound, which is part bluegrass and part folk. His lyricism and indie sound come together to form songs that could easily stand on their own as instrumentals.
Admittedly, yes, there have been some changes to Isakov’s music. Evening Machines, the first original album he has released since 2013 undoubtedly has higher production value than some of his earlier releases, such as the aforementioned Rust Colored Stones or Songs for October, from 2005. But the core of the music is the same, and so are the instruments, themes, occasional lo-fi vocal distortions and overall sound.
So what’s keeping people interested? Probably the fact that every second of Evening Machines, much like Isakov’s other releases, is almost too emotionally intense to handle. The album opens with “Berth,” which takes listeners on a journey of visual imagery with lines such as, “Seasons wake with sleeping birds now flying south / Covered mouth, we watch in awe.”
This track is followed by “San Luis” and, later, “Powder,” both songs rich with the regionalism and nostalgia that have characterized so many of Isakov’s previous releases. “San Luis” refers to San Luis Obispo and “Powder” makes references to “the dirty south.” But what makes Isakov’s recurring theme of regionalism so interesting is how vast it is — these concrete locations are used to enhance the visual imagery. That imagery is then used abstractly and metaphorically, a method Isakov utilizes to embed emotions into his words.
This theme of looking back at the past continues throughout the album. Isakov makes it clear, however, that this isn’t about not being able to let go — it’s about moving forward and examining your past in order to self-reflect. On one of the album’s standout tracks, “Was I Just Another One,” Isakov sings to an old friend or lover, “Did I stumble through your darkness / Or was I just another one?” Even with this somewhat disgruntled line, the song is more about reflecting than it is about resenting.
Another notable song, “Caves,” features an almost-rock-but-not-quite sound augmented by the addition of a distorted electric guitar. It is one of the most experimental tracks that Isakov has released thus far, and it still stays loyal to the heart of Isakov’s music. The lyrics refer to nature as a powerful force for introspection with the lines, “Remember that bright hollow moon / It showed our insides on our outsides.”
Fittingly, the album ends on a simultaneously nostalgic and hopeful note: “Wings in All Black” is classic Isakov in every way, right down to the unwitting lament of a lost love and the resolve to move on despite that loss. “Yeah, I been gone,” sings Isakov, perhaps in reference to the five-year break between this album and previous release The Weatherman. “But now I’m back.”
The triumph of Evening Machines goes to show that old singers don’t always need to learn new tricks. After all, in Isakov’s case, at least, his tried-and-true tactics have been doing the job tremendously well for the past 15 years. And they did him justice again for the seventh — and likely not the last — time.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the song “San Luis” referred to San Luis, Colorado. In fact, it refers to San Luis Obispo, California.