The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust
By Craig Finn
“It’s the start of a brand new adventure.” sings Gary Louris on “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”, the opening track on The Jayhawks’ new album Paging Mr. Proust. The band itself is not brand new, having formed in Minneapolis in 1985, the album shows a commitment to adventure and forward motion which makes this collection of songs exciting and instantly memorable.
I am 44 years old this year, and have been a Jayhawks fan since 1986, when I was in high school. I grew up in Minneapolis, and was enthralled by the rock and roll bands coming out of my hometown. The Jayhawks are the band from this era with serious staying power. They’ve pushed forward through a number of lineup changes to create nine distinct studio records over their 30-year history; I’ve been listening through most of my life and I very much believe the Jayhawks are one of the Great American Rock Bands.
The Jayhawks were first known to me as a band that melded traditional country sounds with a modern rock approach. At some point people called that Americana, I guess. But they’ve done a lot of other things too, and they largely eschew the twang on Paging Mr. Proust. Instead, they pair a classic Brit-rock sound with a kind of playful experimentation. To me, this record is as strong as anything they’ve done, and that’s saying a great deal.
In terms of personnel, this album is a return to the lineup that recorded the Sound of Lies (1997) and Smile (2000) albums, but the band feels like it’s very much pushing onward while still acknowledging past glories. Louris told me that the band worked harder in pre-production than on any previous Jayhawks’ record, and that most of the songs were demoed in his home studio before recording the album with co-producers Peter Buck and Tucker Martine in Portland, OR.
The album’s title Paging Mr. Proust is a reference to Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, and the lyrics often show a longing for a less chaotic and distracted experience than today’s 24/7 information age. Proust isn’t the only literary figure that shows up, as Robert Frost, David Foster Wallace and John Keats also appear, each one seemingly suggesting that we slow down a bit. Even the cover photo, a shot of the TWA terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport (aka JFK) in the 1960s, suggests an exciting time that looked towards the future, but was still human. I think this mirrors the songs on the record, which are at once comforting and progressive. In today’s age of miniscule attention spans, these songs seem to be about small moments, and Louris magnifies and explores these moments to find something compelling and enthralling within.
“Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”, is the first track on the record as well as its first single. It’s upbeat and sunny with a soaring melody and a ‘60s feel. The chorus comes quickly, and rewards with classic Jayhawks harmonies. The quiet corners and empty spaces that Louris is looking for are escapes from a life where “we drown in ups and downs”. The song, like the album, asks us to hit pause on our lives and notice the small wonders around us. To me, the way that Louris, drummer Tim O’Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg sing together is one such wonder. It’s a fitting invitation into the record.
The next song, “Lost the Summer” is especially thrilling as it features the first of a number of great guitar moments on the record. Gary Louris is most often cited as a great singer, but I think his guitar chops aren’t spoken of enough. Luckily, they are on display throughout the record. The solo in this song stretches out over a verse and chorus and brings to mind the bullish jabbing leads of classic Crazy Horse.
“Lovers of the Sun” contains what I think might be the dual thesis statements for the record, “There’s more to life than letting go” and “There’s more to life than getting by.” It suggests an attempt at finding the balance between caring and not caring, burning out and surviving, keeping on and keeping it real. The bridge opens up into something bright and beautiful, a reminder of what’s there if we just let ourselves see it.
From here, the album rolls along with song after song of gorgeous vocals and strong, tight arrangements. The lyrics are efficient, saying a lot with a little, and Marc Perlman’s melodic bass playing supports and propels the songs wonderfully.
I’m guessing the song that will surprise most is “Ace”, which originated with a Rhythm Ace drum machine experiment. The version on the album was recorded as a first take jam. It comes on with a funky swagger but ends up in a Krautrock sprawl, with Louris once again attacking the guitar, spraying chunks of big noise against bubbles of synths in a way that suggests an argument. Maybe it’s another fight between classic and modern? It could also be that this is the sound of, as the song suggests, “one foot in and out of heaven.”
“Comeback Kids” is one of my favorites, as it’s propulsive and has a narrative lyric, detailing an airplane trip to North Carolina to meet a lover. A synthesizer hovers above spacily, offering another futuristic companion while Louris says “We’re the comeback kids / never forgetting what we did or where we came from.”
I won’t soon forget where The Jayhawks came from, as they have long been part of my personal musical listening history. But I find it most impressive that Paging Mr. Proust is most concerned where the band is going and not where it’s been. Few bands have this kind of staying power, and the ones that do are usually content with a proven formula. It excites me that that The Jayhawks are still moving forward, trying to find the place that feels correct right now. This record is about finding and celebrating small moments, and at this moment we find the Jayhawks thirty years into their career and still making compelling and ever changing rock music.
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