Amos Lee: Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song

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What’s old is new, or is it what’s old is old and what’s new is new? Amos Lee’s career sometimes confuses people, I think, because he uses both old and new as if they were just tools he’s picked up, as he blends his beginning as a recording artist with his new work, to get a job done. I think he’s been building his career from the beginning around an ever-stronger core of songs and records, each flowing together, one after another, as if they were set down in a plan years ago.

I first encountered Amos Lee’s songwriting live, early on, at the time of his first record, “Amos Lee” (Blue Note Records, 2005). He toured with Bob Dylan, opening for Dylan and Merle Haggard. And he was good. When I listen to that first record today, side by side with his fifth studio record, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” (Blue Note Records, 2013), I hear the journeyman’s clear voice, and there’s that feeling, that something special that he’s carried all along.

Jack Kerouac totally called it when he said all he had to offer anyone as a writer was his confusion. It’s something special when a man can pick up a guitar and find the simplest words to explore complicated, confusing, eternal emotional landscapes that he knows we all travel. Why make it complicated?

“Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” was recorded live with Lee’s touring band in Nashville. Many of the tracks have a floating quality, making them seem more nostalgic than Lee’s previous records. Producer Jay Joyce is known for the atmospherics he brings to studio recordings, and he’s done that again here. And like with Lee’s previous records, the layers are kept to a minimum, in most cases allowing Lee’s voice and guitar to remain central.

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Lee’s voice and stories carry his songs along. Always rich, simple, elegant, and honest. I think his brilliance as a songwriter is exactly the reason people sometimes criticize him: He writes lyrics that wrap everyone in the simple truth of their own lives. Lovers break hearts, memories cut deep. We feel the same things: We get hurt, we get pushed to our limits, we give up and start again. We all go through the same things, over and over.

Mission Bell” (Blue Note Records, 2011) set a career high mark for Lee, hitting number one in the U.S. Some have wondered how “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” could possibly beat it. As I listen to this new record, especially songs like “Johnson Blvd.,” “Dresser Drawer,” “Mountains of Sorrow,” and “Burden,” I hear songs that flow backward to “Mission Bell,” and even to “As the Crow Flies” (Blue Note Records, 2012), an amazing EP that somehow slipped by without much notice.

Other songs on the new album split away into a new space: “Stranger,” “The Man Who Wants You,” “Loretta,” and “Plain View.” I love the energy of these particular songs, but they sit awkwardly next to the others. Earlier albums were beautifully crafted as whole albums. Here, we have a studio and an almost-live recording sewn together, in a way that feels uneven. I almost want these songs, with the exception of “Stranger,” pulled out and developed into a separate record.

Lee’s records are novels, full of characters and action and sorrow, with his infinite melodies played on his acoustic guitar. This time, though, the lyrics sometime seem pushed down in favor of the live energy. I’ve always stayed with Lee’s work because of his lyrics, and I miss them here—just a bit.

With Eyes Severe

Well, at a certain time of night now
I become one with the wind
Where there isn’t a beginning
And there is no end

Oh, when everything is flowing
Everything is on time
And I know that all we’re going
To the end of the line

Well, I’m out here on my night train
Drinking coffee, taking cocaine
I’m out here on my night train
Trying to get us safely home

(From “Night Train” by Amos Lee, on his record “Supply and Demand“)

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