A Jason Isbell record always lands like a decoder ring in the ears and hearts of his audience, a soundtrack to his world and magically to theirs, too. Weathervanes carries the same revelatory power. This is a storyteller at the peak of his cra?, observing his fellow wanderers, looking inside and trying to understand, reducing a universe to four minutes. He shrinks life small enough to name the fear and then strip it away, helping his listeners make sense of how two plus two stops equaling four once you reach a certain age — and carry a certain amount of scars.
“There is something about boundaries on this record,” Isbell says. “As you mature, you sEll aFempt to keep the ability to love somebody fully and completely while you’re growing into an adult and learning how to love yourself.”
Weathervanes is a collecEon of grown-up songs: Songs about adult love, about change, about the danger of nostalgia and the interrogaEon of myths, about cruelty and regret and redempEon. Life and death songs played for and by grown ass people. Some will make you cry alone in your car and others will make you sing along with thousands of strangers in a big summer pavilion, united in the great miracle of being alive. The record features the rolling thunder of Isbell’s fearsome 400 Unit, who’ve earned a place in the rock ‘n’ roll cosmos alongside the greatest backing ensembles, as powerful and essenEal to the storytelling as The E Street Band or the Wailers.
They make a big noise, as Isbell puts it, and he feels so comfortable leQng them be a main prism through which much of the world hears his art. He can be private but with them behind him he transforms, and there is a version of himself that can only exist in their presence. When he plays a solo show, he is in charge of the enEre complicated juggle. On stage with the 400 Unit, he can be a guitar hero when he wants, and a conductor when he wants, and a smiling fan of the majesty of his bandmates when he wants to hang back and listen to the sound.
The roots of this record go back into the isolaEon of the pandemic and to Isbell’s recent Eme on the set as an actor on MarEn Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. There were guitars in his trailer and in his rented house and a lot of Eme to sit and think. The melancholy yet soaring track “King of Oklahoma” was wriFen there. Isbell also watched the great director work, saw the relaEonship between a clear vision and its execuEon, and perhaps most important, saw how even someone as decorated as Scorsese sought out and used his co-workers’ opinions.
“It definitely helped when I got into the studio,” Isbell says. “I had this reinvigorated sense of collaboraEon. You can have an idea and you can execute it and not compromise — and sEll listen to the other people in the room.”
Palehound’s new album Eye On The Bat charts something that divides you into “before” and “after” – the danger of fantasy, of heartbreak, and the pain of growth. How we can surprise ourselves. It’s a documentation of illusions shattering, both of yourself and of others. A tangle of raw nerves coming undone amongst swelling, propulsive instrumentation, it’s the biggest – and best – Palehound has sounded on record.
From Palehound’s critically-acclaimed debut album Dry Food (2015) to A Place I’ll Always Go (2017), and Black Friday (2019) and then, Doomin’ Sun (2021) by Bachelor (a collaborative project with Jay Som’s Melina Duterte), El Kempner’s songwriting has always been generous and personal, dispatches from a deep inner world. On Eye On The Bat, though, we meet Kempner anew: a guttural howl; white-hot and blistering catharsis; a feverish and visceral and painful present.
As Palehound, Kempner’s guitar playing – their sinewy and off-kilter riffs – has always been front and center across the project’s discography, like smoke unfurling around anxiety-laden lyrics. It’s cerebral, trying to make sense of grief in a grocery store or an argument in a parking lot, plumbing the anxious depths of the interiors. Introspection, retrospection, whatever you’d like to call it, has threaded together Kempner’s songwriting, the bruising aftermath of trying times, since the very beginning. Here, though, we’re trapped in the immediate: witnessing the tiny details that build or break a relationship, and the flood that comes after.
“It’s about me, but it’s also about me in relation to others,” Kempner says of the album. “After hiding for so long – staying inside and hiding your life and hiding yourself from the world – I was ready. I think I flipped.”
Recorded in brief stints across 2022 at Flying Cloud Recordings in the Catskills, the space between each session gave Kempner more time to breathe, to revisit the songs after time away. Kempner co-produced Eye On The Bat alongside Sam Owens (Big Thief, Cass McCombs), who was also crucial to the process — lending assistance yet allowing Kempner to take the reins on producing, to call the shots on the session and step into their own as a producer. Kempner also credits multi-instrumentalist Larz Brogan, who they refers to as “their platonic life partner” and longtime member of Palehound since the Boston DIY days, as a vital part of making the album come together the way it did. They make Kempner feel seen – allow them to be vulnerable, to experiment, to push themself in the studio. After playing together for so many years, Brogan and Kempner both wanted to push themselves to make a record that sounded less produced, one that simply captured the raw energy of Palehound live. Stand-out track “U Want It U Got It” was almost entirely self-produced by Kempner at home, save for Brogan’s drumming, the first time anything of the sort has made it onto a Palehound record.
“In the past, I’ve taken myself really seriously in the studio, and I’ve ended up with really serious-sounding records,” Kempner explains. “This one – it’s a break up record. I wanted it to sound raw. I wanted it to sound like I was feeling – very much in control, and out of control, at the same time.”
Opening track “Good Sex” charts trying to make a relationship work, the desperation to recapture something, in searing detail; before dissolving into “Independence Day,” its chaotic counterpart, where you realize you can’t and find yourself breaking someone’s heart in the glow of fireworks. “The Clutch” flies by red flags, plunging forward even though it shouldn’t, even though it’s speeding toward heartbreak; while “My Evil” is about being the heartbreaker, hurting someone you never could have imagined hurting. Accepting that, even if unintentional, we all act as villains in someone else’s story.
The poetry is still present – full of aching and shrine-building to minutiae – but it feels genuinely diaristic and authentic. In the past, Kempner admits to hiding behind poetic notions, burying the hurt in metaphors. But here, El’s at their most open and vulnerable. “I was trying too hard to figure out who I am – what kind of musician I want to be, what kind of person I want to be,” Kempner explains. “And now I’m just embracing my instinct, and bucking what other people’s expectations are. These songs are truly just for me. I was really intentional in processing every detail. For my own sake, frankly.”
Eye On The Bat is not a hopeful record in content, but it’s immediately recognizable as the sort of totem you come out clutching on the other side of profound change. It feels like a promise to yourself – if you made it through that, you’ll handle whatever comes next.