After a long hiatus, The Jayhawks made a welcome resurgence nearly five years ago, yet they are still finding new ways to reintroduce themselves to us. Despite going through many lineups over more than 30 years, they have remained such a singular band that it is impossible for them to create anything that isn’t distinctly them, or as bassist Marc Perlman puts it, “after all these years of playing together, everything we do just naturally comes out sounding like a Jayhawks song.” But their latest, XOXO, is different. For the first time, it finds them creating from a wholly equitable place, with each band member contributing vocals, songwriting, and the flexibility of playing different instruments wherever it best served the song. Where Gary Louris has been the frontman of the group for decades, his longtime bandmates Karen Grotberg, Tim O’Reagan, and Perlman can now be heard like never before on this record. Still, in every fiber of its being, it is a Jayhawks album.
In this egoless environment the band built in their native Minnesota, each member was able to feel free to write and sing songs, and stretch their legs in new ways. XOXO shows us the results of that in its ease and lightness. We hear it in the rich, low tone of Grotberg singing “Ruby,” a sad, soaring pop song with a ’70s sheen. And in O’Reagan letting his reedy rasp rip in driving lead single “Dogtown Days,” a tune with the effortless charm of a Big Star B-side. We hear Perlman paring it down on “Down to the Farm,” a hushed, folky song bolstered by Grotberg’s lovely harmonies. And of course, we hear it in the lush familiarity of Louris belting out “Homecoming,” a reckoning of the stressors of our current political, environmental, and social moment. The way the band seamlessly trades off vocal duties and collaborate so fluidly makes XOXO float.
And still, all the elements of the beloved band are there on XOXO. Pop songs with subtle rootsy enhancements, like the smooth run of a pedal steel or the earthy thrum of an acoustic guitar. Songs like the O’Reagan-led “Looking for Your Number” and the pastoral Grotberg vehicle “Across My Field” show us what we’ve been missing from past Jayhawks albums. Even more layers. Even more beauty.