ALBUM: This Empty Northern Hemisphere 

ARTIST: Gregory Alan Isakov

Album release date:  January 1, 2009

The Compulsive Self-Actualizer

There are people who spend years trying to confect a specific sound, vibe, or talent – desperately trying to be originally original – and yet try as they might, a note of farcity always makes its dissonance felt throughout their efforts: the touch is too heavy, the objective too henpecked. And then there are people who, through no particular cajoling of their own, have hearts jam-packed with music, song, and talent: they have interior spaces that pool, then rise up, then overflow, cyclically. Their hands are unfurled and they hesitate to call themselves craftsmen: their stance is a bit more like a funnel, after all.

Why this is the case is a Mystery indeed, and one I won’t comment on at the moment: for now it is enough to focus on the fact that Gregory Alan Isakov falls into the second category, and he is the first to admit that much of the time he himself can’t exactly explain how or why his beautifully crafted songs arise. “I’ve never looked at [song-writing] as an evolution,” he once said, “For me, writing is something you can never ‘master’. . . It’s simply something I have to do.”

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Gregory Alan Isakov was born in South Africa and grew up in Philly area. After doing no-one-really-knows-what (other than a good deal of moving and traveling) during youth and adolescence, he went to college in Boulder, where he studied horticulture and planned on becoming a farmer or a teacher. Music was part of his personal daily ritual, in the morning and in the evening, and was fueled by something like a “strange compulsion” and never a desire to be famous. He began playing out with some friends and, although he struggled initially with being “horribly shy” when it came to sharing his music, he forced himself to overcome that tendency due to what he somewhere described as a sense of responsibility: there came a point when he felt a vocational duty to share music with others.

This Empty Northern Hemipshere is his fourth studio release, and it dates back to 2009. Much can happen in six years, and there will always be new music that’s hot off the presses every month that’s worth venturing into: but this album is well-worth pulling out of the archives and keeping in permanent circulation.

The Balance Between Intimacy and Discipline

Time, movement, nostalgia, heart-ache, and gentle self-reproach are expressed in this collection of exquisite songs. Warm orchestration, folk-guitar, and Isakov’s soothing, creaky voice weave a melodious atmosphere of such longing and intuition that you’ll find memories from years long past gathering into the forefront of your mind. Time is suspended and lifted off for a moment. A sense of home threads like a bead of water across your mental window-panes. All of this happens without your noticing it, because the encounter Isakov’s music initiates is as free and organic as his own talent for music and song-writing. It just “happens to you”: but not in a sentimental or self-pitying way. Isakov has found the balance between intimacy and discipline, and his manner of sharing himself through his gifts is sincere, modest, and detached. He has no emotional agenda, no desire to titillate or depress. Simply put, he has no desire to “use” his audience, and his purity of approach frees you up as a listener from the over-dramatic kitschyness music can frequently inspire within the fickle human heart.

The most impressive aspect of Gregory Alan Isakov’s musicality is his song writing. His words capture universal experiences while conveying an honest portrait of the man himself: something like Dylan or Springsteen, but with a much more approachable cadence and tone. “Hope was a letter I never could send; love was a country we couldn’t defend,” he sings on one of my favorites, Big Black Car, a song that deftly taps into the pulse of heart-ache without ever sounding trite. “Words mean more at night. Light means more. Like your hair, your face, your smile; and our bed and that dress you wore,” he sings on Words, almost as if remarking quietly to himself as he remembers a secret shared with a love long past. Proverbial rugs are lifted, particles of regret that had settled into the earth are shaken back into the atmosphere, and snatches of a story with cosmic implications all find expression in Isakov’s simple but beautiful lyrics, and his phraseology will dance around and around in your head long after the music has faded.

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A Secret He Isn’t Telling

I try to make frank and open assessments of the music I come across – I seek to point out the sincerity of the craft as well as the potential shrink-wrapping it may exhibit (viz., in-authenticity). Usually there is some lack of cohesion, some stretch that goes beyond a healthy tension, some song that tries to be avante-garde but ends up sounding tired and uninspired: but this album is what it should be, no more and no less. No drama, no pretense, no noisiness, no pandering, no unnecessary words or overly ambitious instrumentation.

I can point out all the things it isn’t, as you can see: but as for pointing to the thing that positively informs it and makes it stand alone as a glorious triumph, I’m at a loss. And I bet Isakov himself would shrug his shoulders if I were to ask him what makes him tick. 

His trademark hat covers his brow and his posture is polite and unassuming. His eyes, which lift up hesitantly and then drop away, belie a history of shiftlessness and a shy compassion.

One hand holds you captive while the other holds his own secrets close to his chest.

Alanna-Marie Boudreau
Alanna Boudreau

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Alanna Boudreau is a writer, speaker, lyricist, pianist, and guitar player. She has recorded and produced five albums and lives near Philadelphia.