By all accounts, singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov would seem the least likely candidate to be one of the most in-demand performers of neo-folk—the least likely to have one of the most downloaded albums in the iTunes singer/songwriter category with his independent release The Weatherman, the least likely to be playing to sold-out venues while on tour. He is remarkably unassuming in his tone and stage presence, rarely approaching the top of his vocal register when he sings. There’s nary a song on The Weatherman that could even be closely associated to the word “uptempo,” and when it comes to instrumentation and production on the record, Isakov seems to live by the less-is-more adage.
And yet, here we are. Isakov does, indeed, have one of the strongest followings in the folk genre (unless you count crossovers like Mumford & Sons); his new album has at times charted right below the likes of Jason Isbell and Ed Sheeran; and for all its low-key-ness, critics are hailing The Weatherman as the best of his career so far.
Simple: he’s one of the best damn songwriters on the scene.
Somehow, this Boulder-Colorado-by-way-of-South-Africa folk artist has managed to capture the essence of Americana, not by pushing genre boundaries, but by staying well within them. Rather than trying to break new ground, Isakov shines by creating simple melodies over sparse arrangements, and then filling the space with compelling and engaging lyricism. Take, for example, “Saint Valentine:” “Well Grace she is gone, she’s a half-written poem / She went out for cigarettes and never came home…Well, I just came to talk, St. Valentine / I never pictured you living here with the rats and the vines / Isn’t that my own heart hanging out on your line?” Is “Grace” a virtue, or a woman? Is it a love song, a metaphor, or both? You get to decide. Throughout the record, Isakov paints similar colorful word-pictures with lines like “I’m some sick hound digging for bones / If it weren’t for second chances we’d all be alone” (“Second Chances”) and “Walking proud and lonesome now / I’m yearning for the pack / But I’d never say ‘I love you,’ dear / Just to hear you say it back” (“She Always Takes It Black”).
All of this imagery sits atop minimal yet creative arrangements—a foundation of acoustic guitar and maybe a bit of light banjo or strings, a piano riff here, a pedal steel whine there—a musical palate in which at times the appearance of any new instrument feels like a surprise. I am amazed as I listen to how captivated I am by this simple, understated sound that simply should not feel this interesting—but it is. That’s how I know it’s great music.
And at heart, that’s the story behind The Weatherman, and what makes it Gregory Alan Isakov’s best so far. It flies in the face of tactics like in-your-face hype, showy solos, or even the foot-stomping fervor that has taken over much of neo-folk lately. It’s great, simply because it’s great music. It stands on its own.