Decades ago, guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir achieved legendary status through his membership in the Grateful Dead. Released on September 30, 2016, Blue Mountain is Weir’s sixth album outside of the Grateful Dead. This album is almost certainly bound to receive many critical accolades. While featuring the work of contemporary musical talents, Blue Mountain is a logical continuation of Weir’s longstanding musical vision.
It has been a long 16 years since his last album with Ratdog, Evening Moods. Although this latest album certainly shares many characteristics with Weir’s previous work, Blue Mountain has a unique sensibility all of its own. Informally billed as Weir’s “cowboy album,” this record contains songs that reuse tropes and images from the American West. It surrounds familiar lyrical themes with worn, haunted arrangements that have a contemporary feel. “Ghost Towns” is a particular standout with its quirky, cinematic humming chorale.
In past decades, Mr. Weir has often confounded Grateful Dead fans, as he has flirted with soft rock, AOR, and the jazzy jams of Ratdog. Although Weir’s experiments have attracted plenty of critics, no one can credibly question his artistic integrity. In terms of songwriting, Blue Mountain marks a definite return to the country and folk-tinged sound that the Dead used to great effect in the early 1970s. It is a good sign for Dead fans that Weir is able to capture this sound without former bandmate Phil Lesh.
At the same time, producer Josh Kaufman offsets Weir’s traditionalist songwriting with heavy doses of reverb and other atmospheric effects. A longtime member of The National, Kaufman proves a master at creating a hybrid of old-fashioned sounds and modern technical wizardry. In some of the album’s best songs, country-style lead guitar is almost buried in the lush, modernistic soundscapes Kaufman clearly revels in. This delicious tension between old and new is evident on most of the album’s strongest numbers.
Interestingly, most of the songs on Blue Mountain feature the lyrics of Josh Ritter, a rising talent on the U.S. folk scene. Although Ritter’s imagery-rich lyrics can come dangerously close to nostalgia, there’s no question that Ritter has a finely developed sense of lyrical drama. Only one song on the album, “Ki-Yi Bossie,” is solely credited to Weir. In this song, he (Weir) proves a less polished, less studied lyricist than Ritter. Nevertheless, this song’s unvarnished portrait of sobriety-seeking is irresistibly honest. Without doubt, this is the album’s most personal, revealing song.
If Blue Mountain represents a new, more prolific era for this music legend, Weir fans of all stripes have a lot to look forward to. Even if he takes another 16 years to complete another album, listeners can take comfort in the rich tones of this mature work. Now more than ever, the world needs the comforting, self-assured songs of Bob Weir.