It is 35 years, give or take, since The Jayhawks formed in Minneapolis. It cannot have seemed, at the time, a likely long-term endeavour. In a city whose mid-’80s rock’n’roll soundtrack was being furnished by local punks like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum, the establishment of a country band dedicated to chiming choruses and soaring sunshiney harmonies was a spectacularly headlong windmill-tilt.
But all those years later, here The Jayhawks still are, and with an album that is certainly no worse than any of its 10 splendid predecessors, and that might age well enough to rank among their best. XOXO is the result of a recalibration of The Jayhawks’ internal dynamics: Gary Louris, The Jayhawks’ primary singer and songwriter, decided to open the floor to his colleagues. Though all have contributed to the writing before now, no previous Jayhawks album has been quite such a team effort in this respect. Only two tracks are credited solely to Louris. On six tracks, he isn’t credited at all. Lead vocal duties are shared.
This wasn’t ever likely to result in an upending of The Jayhawks’ aesthetic: bassist Marc Perlman has been with them since the start, and drummer Tim O’Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg both date the beginnings of their service back to the mid-’90s. However responsibilities are divided, if these four people make a record, it’s going to to sound like a Jayhawks record. In terms of other Jayhawks records, then, XOXO probably has most in common with the big pop sound of 1997’s Sound Of Lies and the fretful country-rock of 2003’s Rainy Day Music: at the moments when
that balance is most adroitly negotiated, XOXO sounds something like a classic.
Opening track “This Forgotten Town” sounds, therefore, even more like a declaration of intent than it normally might. Lead vocals are swapped between Louris and O’Reagan, and the song itself sounds something like a cut-and-shut between The Jayhawks of Hollywood Town Hall (choogling Creedence Clearwater Revival country verses) and The Jayhawks of Sound Of Lies (ecstatic, harmony-drenched Gerry & The Pacemakers-variety choruses; it does not feel insignificant that the cover image is Duncan Hannah’s “The British Invasion”, depicting a beehive-bouffanted 1960s pop fan contemplating her copy of The Zombies’ “Tell Her No”).
XOXO is sequenced a bit like a set by a nervous group preparing to play to an audience unfamiliar with them: The Jayhawks have massively frontloaded the irresistible tuneful bangers. O’Reagan’s “Dogtown Days” is a gleeful powerpop stomper, swaggering like Big Star and as hook-happy as Cheap Trick. Louris’s “Living In A Bubble”, following that, does have a point that it wishes to make – it’s a rumination on the information overload that is the default condition of 21st-century humanity – but it’s wedded to a jaunty honky-tonk piano backing that recalls one of Randy Newman’s sardonic country tunes, or even Gilbert O’Sullivan at his less vexingly twee.
The gear is shifted into the rest of XOXO by Grotberg’s “Ruby”, a stately, solemn ballad that resembles something Lynn Anderson might have sobbed through during Nashville’s golden age. There are a few tracks that almost sound like they were written in the hope that Billy Sherrill or Al De Lory could have been resurrected to produce them. “Bitter Pill”, a wistful, mid-paced lament led by Louris, sounds like it wandered in from an early-1970s Glen Campbell album. “Homecoming”, another Louris tune, convincingly evokes the cosmic country of Gene Clark’s early solo efforts.
During The Jayhawks’ first decade – and during a brief and apparently unhappy reunion around 2011’s Mockingbird Time – the key dynamic of the group’s sound lay in the tension between Gary Louris’s rock instincts and the gentler predilections of co-founder Mark Olson. It’s entirely to The Jayhawks’ credit that, rather than huddling permanently around the vision of one member, they’ve ended up with a broader range than ever, and sufficiently confident to rouse their dormant inner Fleetwood Mac on the unapologetic roof-down AOR of “Little Victories” and to dispense with percussion entirely on the full-blown coffee-shop folk of “Down To The Farm”.
After 35 years, give or take, The Jayhawks just about deserve to be thought of as a genre unto themselves: a sweet and glorious synthesis of all the Americana music of their time, and from some time before that. XOXO is, astonishingly and hearteningly, the sound of a group still finding new ways to be themselves.