One of the most affecting lines on Blood Oaths Of The New Blues comes during the penultimate track, ‘Jhonn Balance‘. It goes, “I was thinking about Jhonn Balance/how he seemed like a man you could trust”. Whatever your feelings for the deceased, James Jackson Toth also seems like a man you could trust. Whether getting high at an outsider blues festival in Toronto or contemplating the end of it all, his turns of phrase feel just right as they spring from that conversational tone that only the best story-tellers can maintain. Whether coming across all Merle Haggard or Bob Dylan or Vic Chesnutt, Toth understands the traditions and tropes of the music he makes and is experienced enough to never lose his own voice in the middle of it all.
From the freak-folk of the early Wooden Wand Vanishing Voice through to the raucous country of his most recent album, Briarwood, Toth has explored every nook and cranny of the American songwriting tradition, attacking it from every angle and turning up something unusual wherever he went. Blood Oaths seems like a refinement of all of this, his most accomplished collage of ideas and one that feels seamless and beautiful in its own right. Sepia slide guitar aches with loss and pain. Toth’s voice cracks its way through familiar rhythms and offers twisted, fantastical lyrics which intersect at key moments with the most mundane of reality.
Toth repeatedly dreams up the most beautiful images and situations but usually skewers them with terrifying spikes of the waking, walking, boring world. Take the opening track, the 11-minute ramble that is ‘No Bed For Beatle Wand/Days This Long’. After spending three and a half minutes building a tiny drone into chiming, rolling blues, Toth’s voice appears with the words “Honour thy killer” and spins a tale of human sadness tainting nature and how you can’t dream when you’re dreaming. (Christopher Nolan might have a word or two to say about that.) Toth’s story is all about holding on, finding something real in a world where you’re constantly on the outside, shaking your fist at a system you can’t engage with or believe in. Or, as he puts it, “In dreams you can’t dream but when you’re awakened the vault of the sky opens to you/Just calm yourself down, kid take it easy, this’ll get better, it has to/For her”. And, later in the same piece, “Who is going to keep me from freaking out?”.
This “holding on” feeling, the need to “keep on keeping on” that Dylan sang about, is the album’s main thread. It’s about the way music with history can speak to you in a moment, the way settling down (“planting a flag”) makes everything feel different now that it’s all in focus. It’s about being like Jhonn Balance and not dallying with “the shadows in the dusk”. It’s about being someone that can be trusted because dying with a lie on your lips is no way to go. It’s about the way life only becomes truly dear when you are fully aware that it will end. In short, it’s about the thing all great country albums are about; getting by, being a good person and believing in love and family and the redemptive, sacred power of music. Rich and spare, considered and casual, an epic in microcosm, Blood Oaths Of The New Blues all it needs to be and so becomes more.