Every now and again, you unexpectedly come across a record from a completely obscure but strangely wonderful artist that proceeds to quietly blow you away with how damn good it is, leaving you wondering how on earth you’d never heard of them before.
Oakland singer-songwriter James Wallace, otherwise known as Skyway Man, has served up just such a leftfield treat with his surreally ambitious, utterly compelling second album World Only Ends When You Die. A veteran of the fringes of the Nashville underground scene, this his second release as Skyway Man following 2017’s Seen Comin’ From A Mighty Eye, and features backing from Richmond, Virginia’s Spacebomb House Band, perhaps best known for their distinctive work with the (marginally at least) more familiar Matthew E White and Bedouine. The collective’s vivacious strings, horns and flutes, further enhanced by New Orleans based vocal duo The Lostines and a funky rhythm section, give World Only Ends When You Die a richly layered sound which brings out the best in Wallace’s larger than life songs and expansive arrangements.
The World Only Ends When You Die was apparently conceived as “a tragédie lyrique – a cinematic psych-folk opera about a person rendered incapable of coping with an uncertain reality following a near death experience.” A pretty heavy concept for sure, and Wallace’s lyrics are stacked full of religious references and contemplations of the meaning of life and death. Yet this weighty subject matter is contrasted by a deftness of touch and melodic flair which means the album never tips over into pomposity.
It’s a consistently strong collection of songs, blending elements of folk, country, gospel, early rock and roll, prog and psychedelia to create a heady stew that’s hard to categorise, but its closest cousin is perhaps Sturgill Simpson’s outstanding A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, another concept album from a true maverick seeking to distill the essence of Americana into something fresh, new and endlessly intriguing.
Highlights include the rustic, Band-like honking stomp of Old Swingin’ Bell, a 1950s song by the Reverend Anderson Johnson, and two John Lennon-esque, hymnal ballads, Night Walking, Alone and Power. Best of all though is Did Ya Know Him, an irresistibly catchy (and apparently quite intentional) homage to Boney M that swings and soars like little else you’ll hear this year.
With The World Only Ends When You Die, Skyway Man has come up with a boldly visionary record that is bursting with ideas and provides unexpected twists and turns at every corner. The regrettable reality is it’s almost certainly destined to remain a secret cherished by a select few, but those who seek out Wallace’s idiosyncratic odyssey will undoubtedly enjoy the trip.
• This album was released digitally on 23 October 2020, with physical versions following on 15 January 2021