I don’t always think of Woody Guthrie when I listen to folk music, but I sure do with Jacob Thomas Jr. Teetering on that ill-defined line between roots country and folk music, Thomas has the uncanny ability of using finger picking to sooth listeners into their seats, and exceptional lyrics to prick their sides and wake listeners back up. This is a stunning album. That’s all there is to it.
The opener “Original Sin” is not the easiest track to listen to. While it’s comforting in its instrumentation, the lyrics are sure to convict many unsuspecting listeners. The wordplay and writing is at an exceptional level. “Justine” is a phenomenal song in its own right. It’s about heartbreak and acknowledging personal shortcomings. Much of the album follows these classic country themes and styles. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone do it so well.
“Drinking Thing” is a really tragic song. It’s about facing heartbreak and rejection, but also about alcoholism. “I’ve got this drinking thing to keep from thinking things…” It’s a lonely, sad song. It “keeps a foolish man in love hanging on.” This seriously could have come right out of Merle Haggard’s songbook. It’s a superbly-written song that captures a deep seated human reality.
“Skin and Bone” is also sad, but it has an underlying message of resiliency and fighting. It’s fundamentally about survival. “Caroline” has more of the honky tonk feel to it. It lumbers along with a bluesy chord structure and a Roger Miller-style story telling flavor. The line of levity in the track is about dying to meet his ex’s new man “so I can ring his bell.” It’s a more light hearted flavor, but it’s still about deeply unsettling heartache.
Rather than a lamenting sadness, “St. Christopher” is a cry for protection. Although filled with drug references, it’s a sorrowful request to be with his girl again. Staying outside of the heartbreak vein, “Big Airplane” is about being away from home. It’s still intimate and personal, reflecting on a specific relationship. The following “Go Your Own Way” is a nice change of pace as a duo and cover of the classic Fleetwood Mac tune. The flavor is very different than the traditional country sound throughout, but the instrumentation and writing is similar. It’s a calming and refreshing version of a very familiar track. It’s one of the highlights of a great album.
“What I meant to say” is a quintessential folk song. It’s personally reflective, a tad paranoid, and minimalist (just Jacob and his guitar). It’s self-critical of his own lyrics, the things he’s said, “what I meant to say is I love you babe… and I need you by my side.” It’s a great feeling that many, many listeners will connect with. There’s nothing like that after-argument or after-breakup regret. It’s a song meant to be sung with a bit too much whiskey and a heavy heart. One gets the impression from the album that he’s used to that modus operandi…
The most complicated track on the album is the final “Only Love.” The fingerpicking is complex, the words a bit more rapid, and the whole feeling even a bit more hopeful than the rest of the album. It’s a great way to end a mostly-dreary album. It points to hope and – ultimately – love. “There’s only love” is the lyric that punctuates the real message here.
This is an incredible album from start to finish. For fans of the kind of minimalist folk music we tend to feature around here, this is a must-listen album. Jacob Thomas Jr. is a genuine songwriter. He can convey emotions that are transcendent, deeply human, and moving.