I think everyone has that one album that really redefines what music means to them and transforms their view of the world and for me, This Empty Northern Hemisphere by Gregory Alan Isakov is that album. When I listen to it, it perplexes me how I could possibly have access to the same 26 letters of the alphabet as its writers who seemed to select the perfect words for each song resulting in one of the most beautiful, tranquil bodies of work I’ve ever heard.
Starting off the album is “Dandelion Wine,” a song that makes me understand why people say less is more. While the song does not feature a lot of lyrics, it doesn’t take away from the listening experience at all due to how impressive the musical arrangement is and when Isakov’s voice does appear to sing a line or two, it balances it out perfectly.
Due to his unique lyricism, Isakov is able to paint very vivid pictures of the stories that he is telling with his music. His ability to do this is clear on songs like “Virginia May” and “That Moon Song,” but it especially shines through with “Evelyn.” Featuring compelling lyrics such as “There’s an old folk song on the radio / Sounding thin and dark and haunted,” and “And she can’t stand the sight of this cul-de-sac / Like an old crow, king of the lamp-post,” the song tells the story of a woman working the overnight shift in a convenience store narrated to the tune of a banjo strumming in a way that makes it impossible not to root for her.
My first introduction to Isakov was through the song “Big Black Car” and despite the many ways my life and musical preferences have changed over time, it has always found its way back home into my rotation since that fateful day I heard it in my freshman dorm room four years ago. The song is soft, but powerful nonetheless. Featuring lyrics like “You were a miracle, I was just holdin’ your space,” and “The past, she is haunted, the future is laced,” there is a good reason the song has become such a fixture in my life and dominated my Spotify Wrapped.
The albums titular track “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” shows off Isakov’s impressive range as a musician, featuring a heavy guitar and powerful vocals that make the song stand out compared to its softer sounding counterparts on the album. While the recorded version of this song is undoubtedly beautiful, as someone who has seen Isakov in concert I wholeheartedly believe that this song should be experienced live as the full band is able to breathe extra life into the already striking number.
Every time I hear the familiar keys of the piano at the beginning of “Words,” I remember why this album holds such a special place in my heart. With lines like “And I wish I could leave my bones / And my skin / And float over the tired, tired sea / So, that I could see you again,” Isakov reminds listeners what makes him so exceptional as a lyricist with a song that leaves me torn as to whether I want to smile or cry when I listen to it.
Featuring folk singer Brandi Carlile, “If I Go, I’m Goin” shows just how heartbreakingly beautiful a song can be. With stunning harmonies accompanying gut wrenching lyrics like “And I will go if you ask me to / I will stay if you dare / And if I go, I’m goin crazy / Let my darlin’ take me there,” this song devastates me every time, but I will gladly continue to pay that price.
Every time I listen to this album it feels profound; I have heard each song hundreds of times, yet each one feels like a new experience. The songs on this album have been in the background of some of the most significant moments in my life and for that I am so grateful.
Haley Gilbert is a student writer from Lawrenceville, Georgia. She currently attends the University of Georgia and is part of the Marketing and Music Business programs. After attending countless concerts throughout her life, Haley realized the only thing she enjoys more than listening to music is talking about listening to music, and she is excited to do just that with Vinyl Mag. While she gravitates towards folk and rock music, she is looking forward to expanding her tastes, immersing herself in the vibrant Athens music scene, and sharing her findings with all of you.