“I think he approaches songs in a very simple way. He’s not trying to be like your college poetry class, where it’s, ‘What is the biggest word I can use here or how can I use some crazy extended metaphor to lead you down a path you might be able to follow?’” Jacobsen says, adding that Damien Jurado is another artist he admires for his fill-in-the-blank approach to writing: What is said is just as important as what’s left out. Jacobsen thinks obtuse imagery has its place, but he’s a sucker for a good yarn—and in his mind Earle is right up there with Cohen and Dylan, even though (or perhaps because) he doesn’t sing like a pretty boy.
And though Jacobsen is no pretty boy, he knows his world is tidier than Earle’s grizzled path, which is why on his eponymous sophomore LP with the Madison arm (featuring members of Atherton, among other integral players), he settled into the backseat and let the third-person narrative take control.
“My life is pretty good. I’m not going to sell the sad-sack story. I have a wife I love, a great kid. I have problems just like everyone else but …” he says, adding that the new record’s “Fearless” is a good example of putting yourself in someone else’s messed-up shoes. The song’s subject—a bipolar, drug-addicted boxer who was pronounced legally dead three times, once on his wedding night—is a disaster everywhere but the ring, where he’s invincible. The idea of being very good at just one thing, of belonging at least one place, is a concept Jacobsen thinks everyone can relate to. For him, that place is onstage where for a moment, he’s not an incredibly copywriter—he’s completely in his element.
Jacobsen seems equally at home on the new album, a collection of 12 Americana/rock and pop songs whose stories are somehow intensely personal while describing the lives of others. Opening track “Lung” imagines him as both a fictionalized kidnap victim and terminally ill patient to help relay the universal ache of separation: “You said you love it when your heart is missed/melodramatically like this.” A bouncier ditty takes on the ubiquitous indie-rock girl, “dropping such a nonchalant list of your favorite bands/Sleater-Kinney, David Bowie, some band from Sweden and the Cars.”
It’s catchy, powerful imagery populated by characters who are fleshed out just enough. Jacobsen prefers to leave much of the song to the listener’s imagination and The LP stands out as more than typical singer/songwriter fare. It is, however, nothing shocking. Jacobsen is the first to admit he’s not trying to change the world. Not like Steve Earle, at least: “He writes songs I would never have the guts to write.”
And that doesn’t make Paul Jacobsen & The Madison Arm any less important.
PAUL JACOBSEN & THE MADISON ARM CD RELEASE Post Theatre, 245 S. Fort Douglas Blvd, Saturday Sept. 27, 7 p.m.