There’s a key moment in Jim White’s fifth and latest LP, Where It Hits You, where the album pushes itself into emotional depths only hinted at in its opening sections. When the marching-band tempo of “Here We Go!” roils to a close, “My Brother’s Keeper” kicks off the back third of the record and for a moment, it’s like the sun has just dipped the last of its circumference below the horizon. Dusk settles in and the darkness chased away in the lead track has returned. Where It Hits You is a dynamic work that finds Jim White at the peak of his lyrical prowess, displaying some of the finest songwriting of his career.
As Jim stated in our interview last week, he wanted to make the album work like a great composition – “[offering] you hope for a moment, and [then] they carry you down.” The somber, piano-tinged moments of opener “Chase the Dark Away” sound like the pre-dawn feeling its way into existence. It’s a classic Jim White song – lyrics that could be mistaken, in some other universe, as joyful and celebratory, but sung in the mournful voice of someone far too wounded to buy into it. And indeed, the first few tracks ease out of the gate with this same feel. “Sunday’s Refrain” and “The Way of Alone” have a careful, hesitant feel to them, as if afraid of rippling the pond and scattering the small bits of happiness. The latter, a song White has had in his repertoire for a year or more, has a protagonist so beaten that they accept kindness from places they wouldn’t always have, but it’s better than going it alone.
Even in the album’s ebullient middle third people are outcasts. Whether it’s feeling like freaks who can still harness the power of the “Infinite Mind,” celebrating (or is it lamenting?) existence in a way that feels and experiences “What Rocks Will Never Know” or finding their way, somewhat backwards, into a “State of Grace,” the more upbeat tracks here are, much as White said, like a joyful center surrounded by the sorrowful realities of life. But in some ways, the narrator’s abilities to dance in the fire makes the album’s closing section that much tougher. “My Brother’s Keeper” is a dark ballad about someone too sensitive for the world, relegated through one key misstep to his bedroom for the remainder of his days. “The Wintered Blue Sky” revisits the earlier theme of going it alone, only this time hinting that hell truly can be other people. “Nobody ever got nowhere alone,” Jim opines late in the song’s distant thunder percussion, more of a dirge about the terrible effects our actions can leave on others rather than a celebration of togetherness.
If there’s a moment of true, harrowing beauty in the album’s closing songs though, it’s the bridge to “Epilogue to a Marriage.” When the two spouses find themselves blown apart at last (sung in a spectacular duet between White and Caroline Herring), the lyrics seem to sigh, singing “and to think, I’d only just reminded myself / heaven’s seldom ever more than just one sucker punch away.” The small shocks of life usually send us toward more of a hell than a heaven, but in White’s world, it seems like the dark injustices are just another gift of enlightenment, no matter how dreadful the outcome. After all, White sings in the closing “Why It’s Cool,” “everything’s a tool / my mistakes are tools / my heartbreaks are tools / and as any old fool can tell you / the worth of a tool is in how you use it.”
Jim White has always been good at ending a record, but Where It Hits You earns its title by saving its biggest body blows for the closing rounds, landing some mighty hard punches that even the melancholic hope of “Why It’s Cool” can’t quite salvage – but that’s probably the point. Where life hits you is somewhere that doesn’t quite break through to the center, but the tremors are felt and remembered – all the way to the end. words/ j neas