There are some albums that just command your attention and This Empty Northern Hemisphere is one. Released in 2009 by South African-born, Philadelphia-raised and Boulder-based Gregory Alan Isakov, This Empty Northern Hemisphere is a fantastic listen through and through. Isakov’s career as a singer-songwriter has been like his songs, quiet and unassuming. And, for an album which Isakov says was “recorded in many different locations: a closed down bookshop, my apartment, the studio and our friend Brandi Carlile’s house,” there is a natural flow to the songs and their loose and emotional stories.
In This Empty Northern Hemisphere, Isakov shows that he is not only a competent songwriter, but an excellent one at that. You see, he has this extraordinary talent of stringing together some of the simplest words and turning them into meaningful lyrics with such profound sentiments. For example, in “Words” Isakov sings, “Words mean more at night/ Like a song/ And did you ever notice/ The way that light means more than it did all day long?” And, if you think about it, Isakov is right. Words, especially those written or spoken to a lover, whether near or far, always seem to be more important and have more meaning at night. Of course, this isn’t the only lyrical example. In an album centered around love, heartache and nostalgia, Isakov effortlessly creates honest and emotional lines like “Hope was a letter I never could send/ Love was a country I couldn’t defend” in “Big Black Car.”
These words of sadness and longing are only matched by Isakov’s melancholic voice, which at times sounds flawless. Equally flawless is Brandi Carlile, who provides her remarkable voice to a handful of songs. In “That Moon Song,” Isakov opens as Carlile expertly adds her distinctive vocals intermittently throughout the song. I must say, that for me, the very moment Carlile joins Isakov, it’s as if the clouds part and the angels sing. It’s these duets with Carlile that give This Empty Northern Hemisphere its moments of brilliant beauty.
Also, beautiful is the folksy instrumentation surrounded by string sections and orchestral arrangements. “The Master and the Hound” is absolutely gorgeous — probably the most stunning song on the album — with Isakov’s painfully heartbreaking vocal performance supported by the distressed finger-picking of an acoustic guitar and ending almost on a cinematic note. The use of the acoustic guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and a faint banjo gives “If I Go, I’m Goin'” a depressed quality while the affecting duet creates feelings that are all too real and raw. However, despite the emotional gravity of the record, Isakov does include some great mid-tempo tracks like “Evelyn” and “Virginia May” to lighten the mood.
This Empty Northern Hemisphere is a poignant tour de force of richly textured and poetic songs. It’s a glowing collection of folk that will continue to find its way back to my ears and heart for many years to come.
Gregory Alan Isakov – That Moon Song