“It’s probably my most interesting work to date. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s 10 in interesting.” Jimbo Mathus says about his recently-released record Incinerator (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum). He makes this observation in an accompanying short film documentary The World According to Jimbo Mathus.
That’s saying a lot, given the eclectic output of blues, hot jazz, country, gospel, and Americana material that he’s put out over the past two and a half decades. He picked up that thread recently over the phone.
“Some of these songs I wrote 30 years ago but never had a place for. I turned 50 – I’ll be 52 this year - and wondered why I keep making records other than the fact that I enjoy it. So I started examining the reasons,” he says. “And so much of what I write is memorializing people and places in my life. It’s a way for them to sort of continue to live.”
Its creator notes that every song on Incinerator has a connection to someone close to him, be they living or dead. A resident of rural Taylor, Mississippi, Mathus finds kinship in what he does to the work of another product of the Magnolia State, author William Faulkner. His novels were also very evocative of a place and a time across generations of characters, resulting in a body of work that creates its own mythology.
Mathus says he wasn’t having macabre or morbid thoughts with making this record, but feeling something more reflective. He also put down the guitar in favor of the piano, which he says made the material more emotionally important. The record was cut live in just a couple of sessions with Mathus, guitarist/drummer Bronson Tew, and bassist Matt Patton (whose regular gig is with the Drive-By Truckers). Tew and Patton were also co-producers.
“It’s the proudest thing I’ve ever done,” Mathus says, before expounding on the otherwordly, doom laden-sounding title track. He was inspired to write it while recalling a job he had in his youth as a deckhand on barges cruising the Louisiana bayous. And how the flames shooting up from the refineries and chemical plants made him think of the spirits of the dead, how energy is released from physical bodies like those flicking spire burn-offs.
“Souls have power. You’re given this power when you’re born and it endures. The human creature is amazing, and we take that for granted when we wake up. We get another day to do with what we want,” he says. “The energy is there, and I started speculating that the sun is our home and [after death] we stay there in reserve like those oil tanks, just waiting to be called back into duty.”
Other tracks—the majority of which Mathus wrote or co-wrote—show him wandering into country territory (“You Are Like a Song,” “South of Laredo”), shaggy dog novelty (“Jack Told the Devil”), or sounding like a deranged—but hungry—Jerry Reed (“Alligator Fish”). “Sunken Road” is a duet with country chanteuse Lily Hiatt, and the album closes with a cover of A.P. Carter of the Carter Family’s “Give Me the Roses.” That tune all about the importance of celebrating someone and telling them that while they’re alive and not “lying in a narrow bed.” In the ground.
But it’s a trio of tunes of romantic regret that sound unlike anything Mathus has done before. “Really Hurt Someone,” “Been Unravelling,” and “Sunk a Little Loa” could have fit nicely on a ‘70s album by Isaac Hayes, Donnie Hathaway, or Latimore with their pained vocals, spare piano, and lush orchestration with background singers. Mathus says he wasn’t trying to reach his inner Soul Man on purpose.
“I wasn’t thinking along any kinds of genres. I don’t listen to a lot of new music, I’ve been listening to the same records for decades,” he offers. “Those songs have to do with the piano and voices and leaving room for more production ideas. Simple, striking, and not crowded. And my voice has kind of matured and works now in a lower range.”
Jimbo Mathus had a taste of mainstream national fame as the leader of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The retro hot-jazz ensemble had an unlikely radio and MTV hit with “Hell” in 1996. But since that group broke up a few years later, he’s had a more eclectic (and likely personally satisfying) musical journey both as a solo artist and with different ensembles. Mathus reformed a mostly-new Zippers lineup in 2016, later releasing Beasts of Burgundy. He now alternates recording and touring between that outfit and his solo work. That means when he writes a song, he can slot it into the sonic delivery vehicle which he feels will produce the best result.
“I never write a song for any purpose. If I’m struck by inspiration, it’s important to me,” he says. “I’ll even start with just a title, and then it can go in any direction rock or honky tonk or somewhere else.”
Now something needs to be said about the eerie cover for Incinerator. The black and white image finds Mathus – his face hidden by a large deer skull with horns – in front of an old church, likely shot around his rural home area of Taylor, Mississippi.
It turns out that photo was taken about five years ago when Mathus set out with friend and photographer/songwriter/filmmaker Robert Earl Reed. “I needed some new publicity photos, and I threw a bunch of junk in the back of his pick up truck and we just drove around,” Mathus recalls. “I live in a rural area where there are a lot of hunters. And I collect animal parts and weird shit, so we just stopped at the church and improvised taking the picture.”
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Reed himself would pass unexpectedly and suddenly not long after, and the back cover photo was taken at a bonfire that Mathus and some friends held in Reed’s honor the night of his passing – complete with the same deer skull and some unexplained fire sparks in the image, almost furthering the concept of the whole record. Mathus insists that to this day that he doesn’t know how those sparks showed up, and that he never saw any during the actual event.
Finally, the inside photo is credited as a collage by Mathus, which has a cut-out of a naked woman seemingly circa the late ‘60s or early ‘70s surrounded by a circular, cocoon-like shape. It turns out that even this image has a connection to the title and theme of the record.
“It’s a picture from an astronomy book. The most beautiful thing to most humans is the female form. So she’s in the heart of the incinerator, this burning star,” he says. When it’s asked if Mathus just happens to have a large number of pictures of naked women from bygone eras around the house, he lets out a laugh.
“No!” he counters. “My wife would not prefer that!"