Published May 15, 2020James Irwin's fourth album, Stars Blue Wheel, is haunting and sombre, but fights tooth and nail to find the light.
The multi-talented Toronto-via-Montreal artist, who's been known to travel down the lo-fi electro road, pares his sound down for the self-recorded Stars Blue Wheel, going back to his folksy roots with nine pedal-steel-soaked ballads. The cosmic country tracks were written in response to the death of a dear friend of Irwin's, along with the passings of Jason Molina, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty and David Bowie.
Each track is unique and self-contained, but is stringed along the same blue feeling. Irwin isn't just a great lyricist but also a skilled storyteller. Each track tells a different story mired in feelings that are a register apart but of the same tenor as the album artwork — blue, yellow or black. For example, a track like "You Cannot Know the Emptiness" is hopeful and bright, but bleak nonetheless with the insight that "there's nothing to see in sunshine, it only hides the sky." "Dreamland" reflects its title with twinkling vibraphone and Irwin's sweet vocals — until he sings "nothing's gonna come with you to dreamland," and then the trumpet sounds and the track wails like a warped, lonely nightmare.
"Where the River Got the Water" is ostensibly classically country — it's a romantic track you could slow dance to, but it's vibrating with an anxiousness. "Cheekbone to cheekbone, and coming apart," Irwin sings. Every airy thought is reined in by a kind of stark realism, very much mimicking the way our thoughts roll — sometimes hopeful, other times the devil's advocate.
Irwin says the sounds came after the lyrics. The result is that Stars Blue Wheel is beautiful and delicate, graceful and soaked in Irwin's relaxed croon, but undergirded by a deep well of knowledge — of death, of things ending, of sadness. The album is haunting, but tries so hard to be optimistic. Give it a listen — it'll make you smile or cry. (Independent)