Review: Jason Hawk Harris Finds Inspiration in Adversity on Solo Debut 'Love & the Dark'

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Rating: 7/10

Jason Hawk Harris first came to my attention as a member of the California-based group The Show Ponies when they wowed audiences at the Americana Music Festival. Since that band has gone on indefinite hiatus, fans have been waiting for Harris, the classically trained punk-turned-folkie, to debut his solo album. But life threw Harris some curves. His mother passed away from complications of alcoholism, his sister was diagnoses with multiple sclerosis, and Harris himself succumbed to his own addiction demons. Those hardships have heavily informed the lyrical content on his new album Love & the Dark, out Aug. 23 on Bloodshot Records.

One only has to look at the titles of some of the album's songs to see the tumult; “Confused”, “I'm Afraid”, and “Giving In” all hint at an artist facing some deep personal questions. And that, along with the far ranging arrangements, is what makes Love & the Dark such a compelling listen.

The album sets the tone from the start with “The Smoke and the Stars.” Fading in slowly with slow steel over heavy sustain, the first lyrical introduction to Jason Hawk Harris as a solo artist are “I don't like how they stare. I don't like them at all. My yellow-eyed daughters. My cold-blooded sons... and the forks in their tongues.” It's a great beginning and bounces between gently picked acoustic guitars and booming electric chords just as Harris' voice swells from a near whisper to a boom. The song ends on a more positive note, with Harris calling out to his lover “Maybe I was just waiting for you to get through that grapevine and tear down that door. Let me live in those green eyes of yours.”

At the other end of the album is the standout track on Love & the Dark, “Grandfather.” This is the reward for an album full of pain, a ray of hope in the darkness. “Grandfather” is Harris' vision of the afterlife, which includes a hale and hearty grandfather guiding him to a place where he assures Harris “people don't talk about what they don't have, or mow people down with tour buses in France, or shoot people up when they're just trying to dance.” But more intimate, and more aching, is Harris' realization that his mother is now “freed from the dark room that's held her since youth.” It's a raw song, intensely personal but relatable enough to be a guaranteed live favorite and the cause of more than a few wet eyes.

“Grandfather” isn't Harris' only mention of religion on Love & the Dark. “I'm Afraid” is an electric rocker that pulls from Harris' punk background that begins with his mother hanging a picture of Jesus on the wall of his bedroom and “prayed I would believe.” The young Harris took Christianity's more apocalyptic tendencies to heart, singing “no monster ever scared me like the face of Jesus Christ.” Later, a more cynical Harris notes “When I talk to Jesus I'm going to ask him to his face, why'd you make this shit so hard? I feel like I've been played.”

Another album standout is “Phantom Limb” where Harris stands at his mother's funeral, contemplating the loss of someone who doesn't feel completely gone. He compares the feeling to that of a “phantom limb”, the sensation of amputees to continue to “feel” the missing limb after it's gone.

But it isn't all darkness on Love & the Dark. On the straight up Hank Williams-style country drinking tune “Cussin' at the Light”, Harris shows off his sly sense of humor in the song's video, which features a corpse-painted black metal girl trying to drink away the memory of her similarly made up ex. The result is an almost absurdist send-up of a classic country trope, not to mention the stereotypical “goth” dislike of the sun.

This is a strong debut for Jason Hawk Harris. There's plenty here for fans who followed him from the Show Ponies but enough difference to ensure that his solo career doesn't just become an extension of his former band. The result was worth the wait.

If you'd like to see Jason Hawk perform the songs from Love & the Dark live, his tour begins in September in Las Vegas and includes two shows at Americanafest in Nashville. You can see his full run of Fall dates here.