With an uncommon thoughtfulness and an ear for composition, the classically-trained Jason Hawk Harris takes the concept of country music and sees how far he can expand it with his new album Thin Places. A true song cycle that unfolds in a linear fashion, the album was inspired in large measure by the death of his mother along with other calamities, and delves deep into the concept of mortality, exploring the depths and contours of grief.
Harris has been one of country music’s most interesting performers from the start of his promising, but somewhat snake bit career. The pandemic took away his ability to tour behind his debut album Love & The Dark. A tornado struck when he was trying to make this followup. His label Bloodshot Records went under, leaving him without a musical home for a while. But he gathered all this adversity and turned it into the real world inspiration for the nine songs of Thin Places.
Harris doesn’t make it especially easy for a wide audience to warm up to this work. The opening song “Jordan And The Nile” is a gorgeous and immersive musical movement, if somewhat fey in how it combines string arrangements with a Gospel-esque approach. This is followed up with the slightly sarcastic “Bring Out the Lillies,” whose cheery island beat and Easter backdrop contrast with the the dour news of his mother’s passing. Jason Hawk Harris challenges the listener to calibrate their brain to an unintuitive collaboration of influences and genres from the jump.
But from there, much of the album presents itself in a manner that is more easy to digest, and a measure more country. Steel guitar is very present through the heart of the record, while Harris works through the hard emotional moments and unsettled brain space following a close and personal passing, articulating in real time the transformational effects this experience has on his perspective and psyche.
Along with the washes of steel guitar tones, the words about fighting back the darkness and finding the light make for a familiar and inviting listen for anyone that has loved and lost. Like any conceptualized work, the aim is an enveloping experience where the songs result in a sum greater than their individual parts. This is achieved as Thin Places transpires.
The strings reappear in the penultimate song “Keep Me In Your Heart For a While,” and a recurring melody first introduced in the first track is called back upon, creating the arc to go with Jason Hawk’s story that is filled with equal parts spirituality and doubt, and speaks just as much to the questions as it does the answers that life presents to us, especially in emotionally difficult times.
The final song “White Berets” comes across as a resurrection story, and evokes yet another genre when it breaks into a Cajun song for a spell. As diverse and interesting as Thin Places is, you worry some about certain moments coming across as so unexpected, it could be distracting. At the same time, tracks 3 to 6 can be selected out and enjoyed autonomously as solid country songs.
Not everyone will “get” Jason Hawk Harris and Thin Places, including some that won’t make it past track 2. But for those looking for a unique listening experience that eschews the standard approach to song and album making, this album will reel you in and get you to ponder eternal truths about death and life until you’re saying it’s one of the smartest country records of 2023.
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