Jimbo Mathus stayed close to his Mississippi home when he crafted Dark Night of the Soul, his latest release with his band, the Tri-State Coalition. The record is a swamp-rock soundtrack, shooting the ache of Delta blues into a well-used vein of raging juke-joint rock.
When it came to the poetry through the 12 tracks on the record, Mathus went all around the world, there and back again, and arrived at himself.
What’s the adage? Write what you know.
Mathus, an alumnus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, knows the American Deep South and himself.
Even from the waning shadow of Jim Crow’s big shoulders, Mathus said one of the South’s greatest gifts to the country is found in its hymnals, its roadside taverns and recording studios.
“The South gave us folk music, the blues and rock ’n’ roll. The South is the home of Sun Records,” Mathus said.
Music was never the same since.
“It was like a bomb that set off and detonated over the whole world,” he said. “The music that was made by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Carl Perkins and Elvis — that’s all from within 60 miles from here. … The British Invasion was created by the South, particularly in my neck of the woods.”
Mathus speaks in religious language a lot in Dark Night of the Soul, which also happens to be the title of a poem by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and a 16th-century mystic.
“I feel I’ve always been drawn to spirituality, that old wisdom of the world and the universe,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to that because it really looks at what shapes us as humans. I’m always amazed at how little we know, but yet we walk around like we know everything.”
The title track opens the record with a simple meditation, a musing from an old soul who has seen too much to believe that starting over doesn’t exact a catastrophic price. Mathus said Graham Hancock’s book Fingerprints of the Gods captured his imagination.
The book makes the case for the existence of a civilization before the present one that was technologically advanced and culturally rich. Mathus said it fueled his thoughts about witnessing human extinction, and the possibility of fussy, persistent intelligent life wiggling back through deep, scorched earth.
“Last year — well, in 2012 and 2013 — some horrible things were happening,” he said. “There were mass murders and tsunamis. Ongoing wars, hatred, the government shutting down.
“I don’t think there are beginning times and ending times,” Mathus said. “I think that life will go on, but I sense some escalation in the world. … When I think about being the last man standing, like Noah, I wonder what brought him to that point, and where does he go.”
“White Angel” is a song about the power of cocaine. Mathus’ wailing guitars mark the ache of appetite at the bottom of every addiction, then come the psychedelic riffs — unexpected but right — to signal the euphoria the user chases.
“Medicine” revisits addiction, this time from the presumed primacy of the user — “fetch me” this and “get me” that.
Mathus penned “Shine Like a Diamond” as an ode to his wife, Jennifer. A simple, slow crooner, the song brims with the hard-won affection of a relationship that’s gone the distance.
Mathus populates Dark Night with characters who do things that wind up in local legend, and with sentiments that side-step sentimentality. Mathus likens the album to a gestation, with all the attendant anxieties, dreams and joys. He bounced 40 songs off engineer-instrumentalist Bronson Tew at Dial Back Sound, a Mississippi studio associated with Fat Possum Records.
“The writing was pretty involved, pretty intense,” Mathus said. “The recording was really liberating — we just did it in a couple of days. To hear it all come to life was pretty liberating. I was able to kind of lose myself. I can thank my group and the studio, and the producer and the engineer, because they were committed to helping me do this.
“I was able to let loose, and I think you can hear it. I felt like I was in a firestorm.”