Independent release, 2016
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/15/2016
“I never claimed that art cannot be produced without suffering, only that art produced without suffering is not likely to be very good.” – Christopher Zara
The tortured artist is, of course, a stereotype. Plenty of memorable art has been produced without the artist having suffered somehow in order to provide the fuel. It’s just that, when you come across an album like Jeremy Nail’s My Mountain that is so deeply informed by its own undeniably dramatic context, you understand how stereotypes come into being; they’re an exaggeration of some kernel of truth.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeremy Nail came to Austin a little over a decade ago and set up shop playing guitar and writing rootsy, thoughtful Americana/alt-country tunes with compadres like Dustin Welch, The Sideshow Tragedy, and Liars And Saints. Those gigs and his 2008 debut solo album Letter eventually led to an invitation to join Alejandro Escovedo’s touring band in 2013. Soon after, however, Nail was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer (sarcoma) that had invaded and “wrapped around” his left leg. After extensive treatment, including radiation, Nail’s medical team concluded they had no choice but to amputate his leg.
A year later, after relearning how to walk with a prosthetic, Nail reconnected with Escovedo, and a year after that, this album was born, with Escovedo producing. The simple existence of this collection of 11 songs is a story in itself, but the headline is that Nail has delivered an album that transcends the stereotype of the suffering artist in spectacular fashion—the context is what it is, but these songs would matter regardless of it. With restrained, atmospheric arrangements supporting hard-hitting lyrics, My Mountain delivers all the emotional heft and cinemascope impact its title could possibly imply.
The opening title track rumbles into view with a smoldering backbeat that feels like it was born in a cave somewhere east of Memphis in 1957. Primal and riveting, “My Mountain” charts the landscape of obstacles the narrator faces along his path and his determination to stare them down and will himself past (“The spirit grows when the winds of change blow in / I might fall, but I’ll get up again”). It’s both obviously autobiographical and well-crafted enough to feel universal (“My mountain, the story of our age / There’s always something standing in our way”).
There’s a haunted quality to almost every song here, populated by spare, dangerous electric and acoustic guitars, murmuring rhythm sections, and gauzy female harmony vocals, but the main reason they work so well is that Nail never oversells them. Despite the raw emotion of the themes explored, he never oversings; he simply trusts the songs’ inherent power to do all the work, and that understated approach serves to amplify rather than mute their ultimate impact.
“Down To The Ocean” is decorated with strummed electric chords drenched in reverb, a hymn to rebirth and redemption (“Let the waves wash away my failure / To come back new again”). Escovedo’s silky production, whose burnished, echoey quality reminds me of Daniel Lanois, frames these songs beautifully. “Dreams” is the closest Nail comes to an actual rock tune here; absent his laid-back vocals, the guitar, bass and drums could be lifted from a lost Buddy Holly track, though they take on a darker, more contemporary feel later in the song.
“Survive” and “Only Love,” featuring Dana Falconberry and Eleanor Whitmore respectively on harmony vocals, inevitably remind of the Jayhawks, that silvery, captivating dialogue between male and female voices. In between, “The Great Mystery” delivers another highlight, spotlighting electric guitarist Chris Masterson’s arcing slide notes as Nail sings “Every breath that you are breathing is a river to the sea.” Bobby Daniel on upright bass and Chris Searles on drums once again provide expert support, all precision and no flash.
Still another highlight—they’re everywhere on this album—comes with “Brave,” a drop-dead beautiful acoustic number decorated with a scatter of chiming little piano notes and Whitmore’s violin. “Hard-wired hearts leave a mark down the broken bloodline,” sings Nail from the eye of a family storm. “Pushed and pulled, taking sides / The price is high for mending wounded pride.” But in the end, “Mercy and grace in this world ain’t ever too far / “There’s another way, I just know it / ’Cause tomorrow will move on from yesterday.”
“Heroes,” “New Frontier” and “Calling All Cars” offer more sharply realized arrangements and memorable lines (“All of your heroes have already paved your path / You’re bound to find yourself following their tracks”). “New Frontier” is especially exotic, with acoustic strums, deep violin notes, little washes of cymbal, and a few gently picked electric notes before Nail finally comes in with his vocal. A kick drum is the only percussion and the violin functions almost like a droning bass; the total effect is dazzling.
After all this, the album’s finale is everything you could hope for, a grim, gorgeous declaration of defiance:
“I guarantee you haven’t seen what I’ve seen
I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy
The face of death staring back at me
Tell me what else you got”
The music is all tension and no release, acoustic guitar and violin doing a subtle dance over a muted rhythm section, accented by occasional rumbles of plucked electric notes. “Everyday, I wake and I live with your loss,” Nail sings in a calm, steely voice that’s equal parts grief and grit. “Staring out the window, hear the tick of the clock / They say that life, it don’t ever stop / Tell me what else you got.”Songs like “My Mountain” and “Tell Me What Else You Got” would be exceptional regardless of the context, impressionistic yet hyper-real narratives of the everyday struggle we all face to overcome outsized obstacles in our path. But the fact that when Nail sings “Watch me walk this crooked line / Going up my mountain,” he is speaking of his own struggle to learn how to walk again after losing a leg makes it personal, too, adding an indelible layer of poignancy. Graced with exceptional songwriting, production, arrangements and performances, My Mountain is a triumph, an all at once gentle and fierce declaration of the simplest, most meaningful truth of all: I’m still here.