One of the more remarkable things about Jimbo Mathus' 2014 album Dark Night of the Soul was that amid its careening, roughshod juxtaposition of roadhouse rock & roll and juke joint blues were songs that sought redemption amid the chaos. Blue Healer feels like an extension of that offering, with a twist. Recorded with a host of friends, in analog, with Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum house studio maven Bruce Watson at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi, this set is a shambolic, loose-knit, and ambiguous concept record that offers myth and pathos jaggedly entwined with deeply personal songs about struggle and salvation. "Shoot Out the Lights" is a stomping piano-and-guitar, Memphis garage rave-up that lays out the protagonist's place in the world as a swaggering rock & roll gunslinger. It's a hell of a way to kick off an album and stands as one of its finest tracks. The title number is named for the album's Muse, a female who, in her mysterious countenance, offers the possibility for deliverance as well as inspiration. Combining blues and tango with a pulsing organ chord as its heartbeat, the snare skitter and loose wrangling guitars underscore Mathus' voice drenched in delirium and conviction. Doubt surfaces in the souled-out, ragged country gospel of "Sometimes I Worry," with a stirring group chorus that recalls Delaney & Bonnie and Leon Russell's Shelter People. Resilience comes out of the shadows in the rocking manifesto that is "Ready to Run." One can hear traces of early Willie Nile and Willy DeVille in its steely determination, buoyed by a backing chorus that would make Edwin Hawkins proud. The middle of the record rambles through Kanye West's "Thank You," a primarily acoustic Americana ballad, and "Coyote," which evokes a hallucinogenic dream with lonesome desert-country music. "Bootheel Witch" is a rocking return, as soul, R&B, and gospel come together with psychedelic overtones (Jim Dickinson's Dixie Fried anyone?). "Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop" and "Save It for the Highway" both crank. The former is a midtempo honky tonk rocker that portrays the protagonist's (temporary) backslide with a lyric reminder that no journey to transcendence is smooth; the widescreen backing vocals offer support and encouragement. With its pumping electric piano, the latter is a razor-sharp blues rocker, drenched in R&B and Jerry Lee Lewis swagger. An upright barroom piano and a blues-shuffling bass and drum frame closer "Love and Affection," even as the guitars play flat-out boogie. Jubilant, this is gospel music heard in the juke joint at the moment Saturday night bleeds into Sunday morning; it testifies that love itself is the only thing that redeems. Many artists use the roots music of Memphis and Mississippi, but few can pull it off with such empathic, natural authority and gritty immediacy. Blue Healer is all killer, no filler.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek