By Hiya Swanhuyser
Musicians don’t like to hear their record described as “Great to put on while I’m making dinner.” Truth notwithstanding, it just isn’t what they want to hear. But how would Jesse DeNatale feel if someone said his latest record, The Wilderness, was “Perfect for those frost-covered mornings when I’m in my truck headed to the jobsite, leaning hard on a cup of coffee, when a mama quail runs her brood across the road and I suddenly wonder about … connections.” Would that rankle? Or was that the intention all along?
A dozen tracks of folky rock chug along with a reliable backbeat, because The Wilderness is the work of an accomplished musician. But beyond that, it’s the work of an honest-to-God country poet. “Beside You,” to choose a favorite, has a bittersweet, Springsteenian holiday feel, full of lonely characters and hard-won redemption with an upbeat tempo. Mary’s in Mexico, a lonely doorman falls in love, someone’s doing hard drugs, and through it all the piano chimes out a carol. Yet the most striking lyrics of all are in the lush, swaying title track:
I’m standing in the forest with no place to hide
They said life is short—but maybe it’s wide
I’m steady as a mountain that’s made up of sand
I look to you now
I look to you now
Sounding high on Van Morrison and homegrown in some moments, clear as beach wind in others, DeNatale has tales to tell. The gravelly “bard of Tomales Bay” is a master of fine-tuned observation—the blur of supernatural into natural, of every day into everything, and so The Wilderness is rich with North Bay place-names: the Great Highway, the Miwok Trail, San Andreas. DeNatale also heeds the call of activists to “say their names” with “The Ballad of Oscar Grant.” “It ain’t nothin’ new, but it’s wrong,” he sings over a deep and meditative bass line. “The camera is a witness, just like you.” It isn’t a record about looking away.
A certain kind of masculine Northern California post-hippie is the type who’s worked pretty hard to protect his own gentle nature. This guy has toughed out his own right to shed a tear sometimes, even nurtured his silly side. Such a character probably drives the above-mentioned truck and self-describes as an artist, an eco-warrior, a pagan, or all three. Maybe this record was made for them; certainly, it was made by a Sebastopol dad. There’s even an ode to strong coffee: “Step Lively” starts out at “that cafe around the corner” and then broadens out into a typically DeNatale philosophical mood. “Step lively, because that’s the way the world’s going to need you. And if you’re undecided, just do what you do best.” It’s not your local redneck’s truck music, but … it’s great truck music.
The gem of the record is the closing track, “Paradise.” A glimmering harmonica waltz, “Paradise” goes to an emotional place California may, at the end of 2020, finally be ready to inhabit. The song is anthemic, with an almost “Auld Lang Syne” feeling. It shepherds the listener through the sorrow and loss the West Coast has collectively experienced and doesn’t shy away from imagery many may have avoided these past few years. Ash. A blackened dream. Treasures lost forever, but in some ways, still right here. The words pierce, but the music carries you. “I’m going out where I belong/I’ll keep you with me in a song/And sing it like a cloud into the air,” he sings through what sounds like a tin can. A bright guitar keeps time under layers of reverb, and the hope-filled chorus floats on a wash of organ. In the end, Jesse DeNatale has earned the right to say “Smoke and flame will always disappear.”
‘The Wilderness’ is out now on Blue Arrow Records, available for download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and more.