While it’s a mesh of gospel, blues, and folk, this album is all heart at its center. These 13 brings together the best of Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird. Released on March 5, the pair stretches to new heights lyrically and musically with this soul-strung song collection.
Decades of collaboration
The makers of These 13 met decades before they collaborated on this album. In 1994, Mathus’ band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, had just begun to become known for their style that encompassed everything from jazz to folk. While at the Black Mountain Music Festival, the band first ran into Bird. A few years later, the band invited Bird to play on 1996s album Hot, and after that, Bird recorded and occasionally toured with the Zippers throughout the ‘90s, though he never became a core member he focused on growing his own career.
These 13 is not Bird and Mathus’ first time playing together since then — in fact, Bird even played on their album Lost Songs of Doc Souchon just last year. But, this year’s album is the closest collaboration they have had, with the duo recording these songs around a single mic.
Both somber and easygoing, These 13 draws from a range of styles, but at its core, it’s a gospel album. The duo sings from their hearts as they meld their styles to create a rural and wild sound. Bird’s music has typically been folk music that runs wild, while Mathus, on the other hand, has stuck to traditional country and blues. These 13 mixes the meandering chords of Bird with the traditional roots of Mathus to create a sound all its own. The twangs of their voices mix as they sing sobering lyrics that cause the listener to turn inward and reflect.
The album starts off the tone in the track “Poor Lost Souls,” a song that tells of the homeless situation in Los Angeles. They sing of potential that could have been in these men and women who are “just a lump of coal” when they “could have been a diamond.” The song is simple — the harmony of their voices and slow strumming guitar and fiddle — nonetheless, it effectively conveys the crushing poverty of the situation.
Not every song sets this sober of a tenor, “Sweet Oblivion” reflects more of Bird’s style with its quickened tempo and racing melodies. The foot wants to tap as they sing of the sweet oblivion of how “we were so very young.” The high notes of the fiddle remind of the times of youth.
Overall, the theme of mortality runs rampant throughout the album. In the track “Stonewall (1863),” the chorus resounds, “Let us now cross over the river,” as the pair look at the crossing from life to death. The album ends with this difficult theme in “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain,” which describes horses as they come to take the dead away. The song resounds, “You’re gonna need somebody when you come to die,” to convey the deep friendship the two artists have even till the end.
“My darkest night will turn to dust. Let the daylight have what it must. I’m alone, but I’m free”
Each track seems as if it were set in the wooden pew of a rural church. It could be something stumbled upon by a lonely gospel choir. Mathus and Bird offer up desperate prayers with each song. They implore, “in my life, how can any man be the unlucky guy so eternally?” in “Beat Still My Heart.” These are the melodies found in souls that wander the country.
These 13 was created out of the depth of a long-time friendship. The collaboration of two talented artists created a sound all-together innovative and new. Their bond shows in the lyrics that speak to the core of the soul. These are songs that can only come from the heart.
Poor Lost Souls
Three White Horses and a Golden Chain
Recommended if you like:
Monsters Of Folk
Sources: Pitchfork, The Real Jimbo Mathus, Paste Magazine, Spotify, Jam Bands
Featured Image: Garden & Gun
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