The central theme of My Mountain is adversity — being overcome by it, overcoming it, and otherwise muddling through it. The untold “it” is adult soft tissue cancer. With promise ahead of him, good friends and good press supporting him, Nail was suddenly fighting not for notoriety, but for his health. It eventually took one of his legs. So when Nail sings of “my mountain” in the first track, and then revisits that thread in the last with the line, “Went up Mount Everest but it wasn’t enough…tell me what else you got,” you kind of get the narrative arc that is being set out here.
Up to now there’s been a bit of dancing around the subject. My Mountain sounds terrific. Nail’s voice and guitar playing is laid back, conversational, and is a fine example of the folk/Americana that continues to come out of the Austin music scene. The production is warm and easy on the ears. It’s just…
Knowing the circumstances this album was forged from, it feels harsh to say there are some glaring concerns I had with it. None of these are deal-breakers per se, and the average listener (who doesn’t listen to dozens of albums each week) won’t likely draw the same conclusions. The lyrics, in spots, demanded one more draft, perhaps a polish-up. It was tough to occasionally hear where Nail was going, anticipating that he was going to touch down on a point that would stay in your head for days and weeks, only to hear him not “stick the landing.” The conversational approach, the sense that Nail is just picking up the guitar and letting it all flow out, works spectacularly well except in these moments where the singer seems to be holding back.
It’s these times — when the casual approach undercuts a momentum that demands digging deeper, maybe getting a little more raw — that make some of this record frustrating.
Further, the track list could have stood for a couple more uptempo songs. There’s a stretch of four in the middle where the tracks are firmly in ballad territory, including the tremendous song “The Great Mystery,” possibly the best tune here. The lack of contrast between it and surrounding pieces zaps the charge out of it. I came to this conclusion when listening to the disc first in its original track order, then on shuffle mode. For some reason the song followed the third and more energetic “Dreams,” and it was this shift that helped lend a gravitas to “The Great Mystery” that it lacked when it was couched between the mellower “Survive” and “Only Love.”
While this all surely reads like a negative, I want to make it clear that Jeremy Nail’s My Mountain is a good album. For fans of Jim White’s more-mature and less eccentric takes, and even for devotees of artists like Bruce Cockburn, I think Nail has the talent to intrigue you. It is only that, having seen it as good, it is not hard to imagine that it could have been a great album, and the shortfall is hard to reconcile.