Jim White – Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
Loose – 10 November 2017
I have come to Jim White quite late in life. I first found him on an old NPR Tiny Desk Concert from 2009 and then picked up his 2004 Arena documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. What I ended up with was a picture of a man with a history of depression, an inward-facing view, someone constantly examining his past, his present and his future. But is this reflected in the music? The introspection and melancholia would of course appeal to a British – or more specifically an English – audience but on this new album don’t expect a quiet voice lamenting over the hand that has been dealt to him.
No. This is an album that reflects a man who has been to the bottom, has confronted his demons and has grown to accept them as part of life’s rich tapestry. Well, perhaps not completely like that but this collection of songs clearly shows a broader view and I would venture to suggest a bit less Jim-centric.
One of the things that strike me about the album as a whole is the range of musical styles, touching many aspects of Americana and some beyond. Drift Away (listen below), the opening track, starts with a drone (obviously the in-thing in first tracks) and soon a banjo sets the rhythm, one that builds gently but firmly throughout. From this first track, White has moved away from the totally solo guitar-and-drum-machine persona he was pleased to espouse a decade ago. As if to emphasise this point the next track is a reworking of Long Long Day which first appeared on his 2007 album Transnormal Skiperoo. On this 2017 version instead of a fragile closed-in song, White conjures up images of men in chaps soaking their heads in the water trough at the end of a long hard ride; the broad vista in front of them resplendent in the hazy red and golden sunset. Inspirational, uplifting.
Two tracks, two styles and then comes the earworm Playing Guitars. Even as I sit here writing, having listened to lots more music since I last heard this track, it still jumps right back into my head. It may not be everyone’s favourite track on the album but I defy anyone to dispel it after even one hearing.
A really interesting start and so the album continues. Not that White has moved away from his self-observations but, as I said, appears to handle them differently. Silver Threads clearly sees him – and us with him – looking back and seeing that we had no direction in our youth. This lack of a bearing and the plethora of routes to follow, includes love. How did we handle it then? How could we have known? However, there are still connections across distance and time “when we’re young we yearn to know; as we grow old we learn the precious weight of time…” possibly bringing peace to ourselves by recognising we cannot change what has happened and that we should accept that all things move on.
Love and relationships are central themes, and of course, this being Jim White, as is his continual combat with Christianity. Or rather with the Pentecostal Church of his upbringing. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, an echo from the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, we hear “If I am a wicked child, then that’s what the good Lord made me” followed by “I heard Jesus Christ was the best friend I never had” possibly as much autobiographical as it is building the picture of a criminal who only does what God tells him. In Reason to Cry, White is the protagonist, running away from the clutching hands of the preacher and fellow worshippers having realised that how he felt might be because of a good reason and not because of some sin.
The preacher appears again in Earnest T Bass At Last Finds The Woman Of His Dreams (a great title to boost the hapless hack’s word count), an upbeat country duet where man and woman find lots of common ground, including “them preachers [that] make my skin break out” and not holding “with the way they shout”.
One thing that I have not quite worked through about this album is the use of a distorted voice. It appears in Earnest T Bass and in the Prisoner’s Dilemma and it emphasises a character that is not White. Is this solid evidence that the songs are no longer about him? Or is it a way to hide the inner demons that still need to be aired but can now be done safely, from a distance, distracted and distorted?
The album ends with a song to a child, his child perhaps. Sweet Bird of Mystery, the child of the future, is wished “good luck” and the opportunity to enjoy “fine summer breezes in your hair” and to have a “blue suitcase full of smiles for those miles of open road”. The open road of the life ahead for the Sweet Bird of Mystery, a wish for the future but also a call not to lament the ageing and passing of time as represented by the “store-bought teeth, mail order shirts and cardigans”. For the singer, she (for I am sure it is a she) is his “photograph of heaven” and all he wants, as she travels the road of life, is for the Sweet Bird to look back and smile at him.
The more I have listened to this album, the more interesting it has become. The music is greater than perhaps I originally expected but the album became infinitely fascinating the more I listened to the words and I wondered why that should be. Then I realised. Jim White is primarily a storyteller. In the Tiny Desk Concert, Bob Boilen tells how difficult it had been to get a succinct tale from White; after pleas for brevity, each iteration was returned even lengthier. White enjoys telling stories and the stories on Waffles, Triangles and Jesus are as good an example of his art as you can get. Paraphrasing Bob Boilen, this is storytelling first, with the music a very close second.
Drift Away Premiere
Jim on Drift Away:
“In my late 20’s I found myself increasingly drawn to the company of profoundly damaged romantic partners, mistaking their devils for my own. Big mistake–one fueled by a weird cocktail of personal cowardice and hubris.
We all have our crosses to bear but every one is balanced differently. Even a big man can struggle carrying a small cross if the balance is unorthodox and when you come to that point where you finally realize you’ve fooled yourself into carrying the wrong load and you’re living in bad faith, sooner or later you face that choice to either walk on in your wrongness, raging against your own miscalculation, or try to lay said cross down, leave it behind, praying powers of mysterious grace carry you beyond the valence of said crosses gravitational field. The latter is harder than it sounds for those configured like me.
Drift Away is a simplified representation of that complicated proposition.”
JIM WHITE UK TOUR DATES 2017
14 Nov – LEICESTER The Soundhouse
17 Nov – SHEFFIELD The HUBS
18 Nov – NEWCASTLE Live Theatre
19 Nov – GLASGOW Oran Mor
20 Nov – MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
21 Nov – LEEDS Brudenell
22 Nov – BRISTOL Louisiana
23 Nov – BIRMINGHAM Actress & Bishop
24 Nov – BRIGHTON Brunswick
25 Nov – GUILDFORD St Mary’s Church
26 Nov – LONDON Dingwalls
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus is out on 10 November (Digital, CD, LP).