“I was just in it, swimming through it. There was no plan.” Despite swirls of uncertainty surrounding him, Seth Walker’s new album, I Hope I Know is a beacon of light, each of its ten songs shining forth with what many have come to love about Walker and his soulful Americana: diverse influences, contemplative lyrics, that signature blue tone on the guitar, and movement both geographic and spiritual. Walker’s 11th recording to date, it continues a long-running collaboration with producer Jano Rix.
Walker credits I Hope I Know to the practice of “search and surrender”—a quest for new meaning in things he may never fully understand. It’s a beautiful reckoning with heartbreak, moving across states, not knowing when the next tour will begin among other mysteries encountered day to day existence. The ten track collection could best be described as Walker’s ’round-midnight album. Its tempos are slower and tonality darker than on previous work, one where Walker had to “sit with it,” trying and failing without forcing anything: not time, not the songwriting or its grooves, not a sense of control, not even his own healing.
The first sessions for the record began in 2019, however the breakup of a longtime romantic relationship and the onset of the pandemic in 2020 led Walker to relocate from his home in Nashville, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina, not far from where he was born and raised. The emotional heft of these events paired with the time and space afforded by not being able to tour factored heavily in what was to follow. The set opener “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be” confirms that we are indeed in a world of unknowns. The song’s lyric detailing his journey: “But then the world flipped around and slowed me down, I got a good look at what I need, I must say I am glad to see a change in me.” It’s followed by “Why Do I Cry Anymore,” which asks unanswerable questions about recovering from heartbreak; as Walker works through those troubles, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that love is still worth it.
Walker had to learn to live in flux, finding solace in poets like Rainer Maria Rilke: “Learn to love the questions themselves.” While uncertainty drives the album, it’s ultimately an ode to hope. The title track came from a Hawaiian poem about forgiveness and reconciliation that his mother sent, the Ho’oponopono Prayer, which translates as “I am sorry. Forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” Walker confirms, “There is hope in the space of it all.” Indeed the softness of the guitar pairs with the ‘o’ sounds and harmony vocals by special guest Allison Russell to produce a tenderness that helps us befriend whatever is ahead.
With a healing prayer underway, the album explores, without bells and whistles, what Walker calls “a finer point on the raw tone and color that I was shaded in.” The song “Remember Me” haunts with old jazz and blues, a falsetto vocal, dusty drums and arco acoustic bass. It was born from Walker staring at a bookshelf; comparing a lost relationship to how “prose and poetry leave imprints and memories on the page that will never fade.” And “Satisfy My Mind” is a boggy, but spacious blues, infused with a Buddhist quest. “River” is a dirgeful ode to that elusive surrender, featuring Walker’s touring band in the studio: “We cut that in one afternoon…just set up some mics, and the next thing we knew, it spilled out. In looking back, the songs that ended up making this album are the ones that we didn’t chase.”
Three cover songs offer the familiar to hold onto—a tinge of the nostalgic without the impulse to cling to the past. The Bobby Charles’ song “Tennessee Blues” perfectly speaks to Seth moving from Nashville to the Asheville mountains trying to “figure out what just happened, post breakup.” Van Morrison’s “Warm Love” was recommended to him—and when Walker embraced the song—it became the “perfect respite and breather.” Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” came spontaneously like a dream; Seth woke up one morning and “almost mumbled it into my cell phone. It just kinda happened when I wasn’t looking.”
The pandemic can affect limitations in production, but that didn’t stop the team of Jano Rix and Walker. They laid half of the tracks together in Nashville. Walker said Rix “was masterful [at] allowing room for me, while gently guiding and keeping the thing on the tracks. His contribution to this album is immeasurable.” Oliver Wood—Rix’s bandmate in The Wood Brothers—cowrote three of the songs, along with longtime collaborators Gary Nicholson and Jarrod Dickenson.
Following Walker’s 2019 album, Are You Open?—which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart—he responded to the question posed by that title, opening himself up to gain a more observational state. “This last year and a half has personally cracked me open. In many ways, for the first time, I’m observing myself and how I relate to the music, how I sit with the feeling, the emotion, my shadow and light.” In many ways, the disruption of Walker’s constant state of creating and performing was fruitful. “I have always been in this place of action, and finally, when all this happened, I found myself in a place of relinquishing—an active state of inaction.” It’s that sensibility that closes the album with the tranquil invocation, “Peace In The Valley.”
In the time between Are You Open? and I Hope I Know, Walker’s new state of awareness and time off the road allowed for his first book to flow forward in poetry, prose, and art—a memoir of sorts entitled Your Van is on Fire: The Miscellaneous Meanderings of a Musician comprised by short stories from his life along with his poetry and paintings. Walker was somewhat in disbelief: “When I dug into the book, it was complete, pure muse…it was just me staring out the window and spilling my guts onto the page.” The different form allowed Walker freedom from preconceived notions. He acknowledged that “When you’ve done something you’ve done for so long, there’s residue.” Writing poetry, or being free from rhyme, for instance, made him more aware of the musicality of words. Your Van is on Fire empowered Walker’s voice, even amidst the fray: “It did make room for these new songs to come through, in ways I am not even aware of.”
I Hope I Know took longer to make and thus feels completely unique from the previous ten recordings in Walker’s discography. Indeed, Walker confirms that the album “wasn’t approached with as heavy a hand. I had more time with it. It was not a time to rush, there is more space, you know along the lines of poetry that reveals itself over time.” In its totality, I Hope I Know creates a deep but relatable journey, shining a light and by the end offering a safe haven centered around the most precious of all gifts, Hope.
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