‘I can’t be everything to everyone’, Afie Jurvanen aka Bahamas insists, quite accurately, about three quarters of the way through Earthtones. This album operates on two different, often contradictory wavelengths; musically, it’s a chilled-out cross between Jack Johnson and The Black Keys. Lyrically, it’s a tortured treatise on loneliness. If that sounds like a strange combination, well, it is. It’s also a bold one, a low-key subversion that’s admirable even (and especially) when it’s unsuccessful.
First, the music: Earthtones makes for stupendously easy listening. With studio legends Pino Palladino and James Gadson providing the rhythmic bedding, Jurvanen puts up his feet and sings in an unaffected conversational style, nonchalant even as he ventures to the ends of his not-inconsiderable range. Whether he’s swooping into falsetto for “So Free” or scooping down into low registers for “Any Place”, he only ever sounds completely at ease. This can be baffling, when he’s saying things like ‘Left alone I just hurt myself / I take a bottle down from the shelf’ in his oh-by-the-way sigh, but there’s a reason acting 101 classes advise playing the opposite – it can make for interesting, complicated performances. The aforementioned “Any Place” is an astonishing example of this, a slow blues barstool confessional that sketches a heartbreaking portrait – one of a man consumed by regret, lifting yet another drink towards a wry, grizzled smile – with a chilling matter-of-factness. It’s one of the simplest songs on the album, but a no-joke, gut-punch masterpiece.
Which gets us to the meat of the album: the lyrics. As delightful a bop-along as Earthtones is, it’s a far more complex beast than it seems, wrestling with tonal discrepancies, internal contradictions and a sometimes overwhelming portion of pain. Jurvanen seems to be diving headfirst into the concept of loneliness (displaying a lack of subtlety that recurs quite a bit, the first track of the album is called “Alone”), seeking to represent the myriad emotions one can feel in isolation. Loneliness is depicted as, among other things, self-affirming (“No Wrong”), self-destructive (“Everything to Everyone”), self-inflicted (“No Depression”) and self-pitying (“Opening Act (The Shooby Dooby Song)”), sometimes all within the same song. It’s confused and confusing, which one can read as the ultimate thesis of the album: solitude may seem relaxing from the outside, but the internal experience is often far more chaotic.
Complicating that reading are the parts where Earthtones just feels confused, full stop. Moments like Jurvanen complaining about professional dissatisfactions (“Opening Act” especially) or making largely inexplicable lyrical leaps feel more than personal. They’re specific, so specific to him that it takes real effort to find anything relatable in them. “Bad Boys Need Love Too”, already guilty of some highly regrettable pseudo-rapping, is a pretty narrow condemnation of neglectful fathers that comes back from a guitar solo to deliver a verse about protecting the environment. I’m sympathetic to both ideas, but it takes real effort to find a coherent connection. The result, in that and other cases, are passages that are less soul-bearing and more grievance-airing, narrow in a way the most beautiful portions of the album avoid being.
Still, it’s an earnest solipsism to which Earthtones is given, further fleshing out the exploration of all things prefixed by self-, save perhaps self-awareness. And in a way, even that can be folded into the thesis. Suffice it to say Bahamas has crafted a piece of art far more nuanced and reflexive than I was expecting, one whose shortcomings are purely a product of the many risks that it takes. When those risks pay off though – and they do quite a few times – Earthtones creates something wholly unique: easy listening as sunny as it is haunting.
Notable Tracks: “No Wrong”; “No Expectations”; “Any Place”
FFO: Jack Johnson, The Black Keys, Jordan Rakei