By Erik Thompson
Restless spirits and wandering souls permeate the songs on Gregory Alan Isakov’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere. The 2009 LP’s forlorn characters are torn between equally strong desires to return home, follow their heart or chase their dreams. Isakov’s spare, haunted musical arrangements on his second full-length studio album augment and reinforce those themes of loneliness and isolation.
The music of This Empty Northern Hemisphere captures the bleak experience of exploring the country during the icy desolation of winter, where not a soul is in sight and the gloomy grey skies blend seamlessly into the endless miles of snow-covered terrain. “A lot of those wintry landscapes made it onto the record,” the Grammy nominee shared with us while discussing the record’s weighty lyrical themes. “On so many levels, it had this emptiness to me. I think driving through Idaho and Colorado and Wyoming in the winter, you really get the sense that you can walk forever and not see anyone.”
While the songs on This Empty Northern Hemisphere take their own sweet time to reveal their fragile truths to the listener, the restless characters at the heart of these tracks are always on the move or on the run, off to destinations where their love or their fortunes await them. The open road possesses an alluring siren’s call that magically charms the subjects in these songs, starting them out on a journey to find something or someone that has eluded them over the years.
It’s a desolate road trip album in the same vein as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or the Magnetic Fields’ The Charm of the Highway Strip. When you drop the stylus on This Empty Northern Hemisphere, your needle becomes that of a trusty compass as Gregory Alan Isakov takes the wheel, guiding you on a musical mission to find fragments of yourself somewhere alongside a rural two-lane highway.
The graceful, selfless act of sweeping up the floor after the bar closes doesn’t go unnoticed in Isakov’s world. When you add together enough of those fleeting instances, you sum up most of our lives. And when you compile enough songs about those transient moments in time, you get an album as wonderful as This Empty Northern Hemisphere.