In the dozen or so years since the breakup of his band Black Janet, Jim Wurster has produced a steady stream of exemplary albums, both solo and at the helm of his Americana outfit, the Atomic Cowboys. In the process he has established himself as one of South Florida's most reliable musical artisans — no small distinction in an area consistent only for its inconsistencies.
Any new work from Wurster is worth notice, but his latest, Hallelujah, is especially auspicious. Surveying a broad swath of iconic American musical forms — folk, country, blues, and gospel — the album has a bleak perspective that's as dark as its stark black cover. Wurster adds his voice to a chorus of consternation, railing against a litany of injustices and travails — political, environmental, and demons of his own design. Song titles like "Armageddon" and "We're in a Fix" suggest more than a hint of his dismay. But his pointed barbs on songs such as "Hallelujah" ("Dark clouds are gonna rain on me..../Gonna flood my home and wash me to the sea") and "Blind Man" ("In the land of the free/You can be as blind as you want to be") leave little room to be misconstrued.
Indeed Wurster's laconic, deadpan vocals effectively reinforce the desperation and despair. Echoing the parched, world-weary resignation of Springsteen's Nebraska, Dylan's Modern Times, and practically everything in the canons of Nick Cave and Joe Henry, the arrangements are sparse and stripped down, a rustic blend of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and brushed percussion. Traces of tradition are everywhere — in the barroom blues of "Hey Bartender," the ragged highway ramble of "Ridin' with Jesus," and the redemptive desires of the gospel-tinged title track. In fact Wurster's take on the times frequently brings to mind Woody Guthrie's everyman observations. Given the adroit mix of savvy and style, Guthrie would no doubt be proud.