Jason Boland & The Stragglers consider the nature of consciousness and reality with pedal steel and fiddle accompaniment on sci-fi concept album The Light Saw Me (out Dec. 3 via Thirty Tigers).
Before digging into The Light Saw Me's overarching theme, it's crucial to note that while Boland and the band deal with heady topics, the album doesn't stray from the blue-collar themes fans expect from Red Dirt tastemakers. And as is the case with your favorite songs on concept albums ranging from Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger to heavy metal band Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime, the best tracks hit just as hard outside of the broader story's context.
"There's a couple of songs in there about overcoming adversity, a couple of love songs and a couple of traveling songs," Boland told Wide Open Country. "When you step back and look at what it really has to say, it's not too far out there... I think people are going to find it so much more relatable than when the idea first hits their ear or the first time they hear the summary of the album pitched to them."
With that said, Shooter Jennings-produced album The Light Saw Me tells the story of a cowboy from the 1890s who gets abducted by aliens and transported to the 1990s.
"'Terrifying Nature' lays out this grand narrative of what all humans worry about and wonder about and who are we and all that," Boland said. "And then frame (the album) through this character's life who has this extraordinary event... a transformative experience with the light, seeing the light."
Boland's storytelling brilliance shines less through on-the-nose lyrics about the metaphysical and more through the subtle ties that bind songs--most notably when the story reaches its 100-year jump in time.
"'Transition Out' and 'Transition In,' that's when you would have flipped the vinyl," Boland adds. "He goes from the past to the future. There's really nothing about the extraterrestrials moving him. We just used this extreme instance as the framework for that transformative experience that some humans get hit with when they're chosen."
For one of the final pieces of the puzzle, Boland turned to the catalog of the late Bob Childers, a guiding light from back home in Oklahoma. The inclusion of "Restless Spirits" points to two otherworldly coincidences: Childers' story fit as if the album fulfilled his prophecy, and Boland and The Stragglers had somehow never recorded the namesake of the Restless Spirit Award.
"Childers had several sayings, but one of them was 'borderline cosmic'," Boland said. "When I was sitting down, fleshing this whole story out and seeing what parts I needed, I thought 'Restless Spirits.' The girl in there is the medium for the spirit of his wife from the past, and then that's the culmination of the story. Is there anything tied together or is it all chemicals in our brain? No, consciousness is real at that moment. It's the climax of the story, really."
The story told by Boland, his band and Jennings blends Boland's reading list (namely Ken Lane's The Desert Oracle zine and The Eighth Tower by John A. Keel) with the works of musical outsiders (Jim Sullivan, Roky Erickson) and even Hank Williams, whose country-gospel masterwork "I Saw the Light" gets incidentally inverted in the album title.
"When we're talking about country music, rural music and Hank Sr. being one of the most iconic flags ever planted within it and how the concept of the light tied into this album, almost as pop culture hitting critical mass within the album and really staring at itself, just like the character is staring at itself and how every problem is a fractal of a bigger problem," Boland said. "You know, who are we as a person? Who are we as a people? Well, our art reflects who we are as people, and one of the big moments of Western pop culture art is country music, and one of the biggest icons of country music is Hank Sr. So in the grand telling of this story, there is definitely a nod of the hat. Those words weren't chosen specifically for that. They also just fit beautifully with the concept."
The album kicks off a busy December for Boland and The Stragglers which includes the band's Grand Ole Opry debut (Tues., Dec. 7).
The Light Saw Me Tracklist
1. "Terrifying Nature"
2. "The Light Saw Me"
3. "A Tornado & The Fool"
4. "Here For You"
5. "Transmission Out"
6. "Transition In"
8. "Straight Home"
9. "Restless Spirits"
10. "A Place To Stay"
11. "Faux Reel"