James Elkington

Ever-Roving Eye (Paradise Of Bachelors)

Contact Sam McAllister about James Elkington

Maybe you have a friend or two who manages to succeed at doing the things they lay out for themselves to do. They’re good to have—if you’re not a total sociopath, your friend’s successes will instill joy and satisfaction in you, and you might find that your friend inspires you to labor harder and more lovingly in your own involvements. (This of course best functions symbiotically, and friends will pull each other along the lumpy bumpy road of life and work like those plastic monkeys in the barrel with the interlocking arms. This fact is immaterial to this writing.) James Elkington is a friend of mine, and I have long enjoyed and indeed found satisfaction from witnessing the juicy fruits of his successful labors.


Jim moved to the United States in the late ’90s from his native England with the intention of making himself absolutely essential to the Chicago music scene. Twenty years later he’s contributed to a staggering volume of records and shows and projects both in Chicagoland (see Jeff Tweedy; Tortoise; Eleventh Dream Day; Brokeback) and far from it (see Richard Thompson; Laetitia Sadier; Michael Chapman; Steve Gunn; Joan Shelley; Nap Eyes). The 2017 release of the wonderful Wintres Woma, his first so-called solo album, seemed to be a logical, healthy respite from assisting with the creative needs of others that would allow him to serve his own. The record certainly sounded as though James found in it every reason to be satisfied—among much else, it effectively reconciled his personal and musical mongreltude as a child of Britain and a man of America—and thus could return his focus to bettering other folks’ records.


But as satisfaction doesn’t exist in the past tense, and the present doesn’t exist, and he barreled on ahead: namely with, in the midst of everything else, composing, arranging, and recording an album that could adequately only be called one thing, Ever-Roving Eye. Though it sounds like a line culled from a murderous Child ballad, the title has everything to do instead with the slipperiness of satisfaction, and the equal parts virtue and vice that is being your own mule and driver. (And that somehow calls to mind a quote ascribed to Colette, whether she actually said it or not: “No one expects you to be happy. Just get your work done.”) The songs and their titles similarly bear this out: the first single, “Nowhere Time” is a call to take up arms against procrastination and just get your work done, and features some of Elkington’s most daring guitar-wrangling, echoing his hero Richard Thompson in the thick of the 1970s. (Jim is responsible for some of the ’00s most memorable guitar solos, though till now they’ve only been on other folks’ albums.) “Sleeping Me Awake” is a finger-style confession of the fear of never being prepared (lyrics written while James was worriedly preparing to sub for Jeff Parker on a Tortoise tour). Second single “Late Jim’s Lament” is a white-knuckled nightmare about being late (because he’s rarely on time) and about being “late” (because of an even greater fear of being dead before he gets everything done). “No matter how I drive I know I can’t out-drive the hearse, ’cause it’s too late in my mind and getting later all the time,” sings Elkington, sounding not unlike his other hero, Davy Graham, shouldering his way into a Joy Division rehearsal.


Meticulously planned and quickly tracked (the Elkingtonian way), it includes Wintres Woma alumni Nick Macri (James’ longtime bass colleague) and Macie Stewart (violin), plus new recruits Lia Kohl (cello), Spencer Tweedy (drums), The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman (vocals), and the prolific Paul Von Mertens (Brian Wilson) on woodwinds. Where the first record was more firmly situated in the sonic tradition of England’s more interesting 1970s folk revivalists, Eye engages in a broader wrassle, roping in echoes of British library musics, horror-film soundtracks, demure psychedelia, and more rocking elements of folk-rock. The result is a record even more elaborate, shrewd, thoughtful and confessional than its predecessor.


I don’t know if James is now satisfied—actually, of course I do, and he’s not. And thank god for it. Ever-Roving Eye is instead a sublime distillation of the humane wisdom of a dude who’ll never be; the dude who sings on the single, “Nowhere Time”: “There’s a master plan somebody understands / And I wish that one was me.” It might well cast a pox on the concept of satisfaction altogether. Though it still satisfies the hell out of me.