Rattling out like a loose-mufflered muscle car, Dark Night of the Soul is a more raw-boned version of Jimbo Mathus’ typical roots rock — darker and harder, like a grittier, more visceral take on the mythical parables of the Band. And that’s no small thing.
A veteran of the late and lamented Squirrel Nut Zippers (who somehow managed to brilliantly combine Western swing, klezmer and jazz), Mathus has long been recognized for his ability to mix and match age-old, ass-kicking and down-home sounds. (He’s also worked with Buddy Guy, Elvis Costello, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Luther Dickinson over the years.) White Buffalo, Mathus’s debut for Fat Possum, set a new standard for brutal honesty, however. That intensity, both in word and deed, must have come as a jolt for those who only knew him from the Zippers’ zippy hit Hot.
Dark Night is no less harrowing and, in some ways, even more revealing. As the title of this new album (due on February 18, 2014 via Fat Possum) no doubt implies, Mathus goes deeper still here, reveals something more personal still, peels away more layers still.
Recorded as the impetus demanded over a period of weeks at Dial Back Sound in Mississippi, under the watchful eye of studio operator Bruce Watson, Dark Night has its allotted share of gutwrenching soul workouts (“White Angel”), Skynyrd-style gully-washers (“Rock and Roll”) and grimy swamp funk (“Fire in the Canebrake) — each of them propelled like a steel-toed boot mashing a gas pedal down by his band the Tri-State Coalition, along with guest bassist Matt Patton, of the Drive-By Truckers. Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who produced White Buffalo, also returns on guitar.
But listen as Mathus explores the shadowiest corners of his soul on “Medicine,” a junkie-parable demo that Watson encouraged him to leave unvarnished. The same course honesty vibrates through Mathus’ shit-kicking blues “Tallahatchie,” and the historical groove of “Casey Caught the Cannonball” — two more first-take triumphs that help form the heart of Dark Night of the Soul.
Mathus ends with “Butcher Bird,” a ghostly Allmans-esque euology. It serves as a churchy farewell that beckons us not toward the hereafter, but right back to the beginning of this enveloping statement of musical purpose.