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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Lifers, the label debut of country troubadour Cody Jinks, which is out this Friday.
In August of 2016, Cody Jinks experienced one of the rarest things an independent artist releasing their music on their own can experience: He gatecrashed the Top Country Albums Billboard chart, coming in at No. 4, ultimately selling 70,000 copies of his fifth LP, I’m Not The Devil. Jinks’ success seemed overnight — he seemingly came from nowhere to slot in alongside commercial juggernauts — but he had been grinding it out as a small barroom touring artist for close to a decade, putting out outlaw country records soaked in whiskey and regret to a rabid, but growing, audience. In the post-Stapleton world — where songcraft and being your own self has opened a lane of varying levels of success for artists ranging from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to Margo Price and Tyler Childers — Jinks’ songs of hard luck and hard jobs fit right in, which led the previously self-reliant artist to sign with Rounder Records for his sixth LP, Lifers, his best LP yet, 11 songs of sadness, loneliness and grappling with the passage of time.
The songs on Lifers are populated with characters often pushed to the margins of country music specifically and pop music generally. These aren’t people who get to party all night, or can afford to be somewhere on a beach; these are people who bring a change of clothes to their day job because they’re going to have a 30 minute break between shifts. Jinks pays homage to these people on Lifers, particularly in its title track, which shouts out the “struggle and strifers” and people still striving to attain some level of the American dream. Elsewhere, a man surprised at how quickly his life has passed him by considers himself in a mirror (“Stranger”), while the guy in “Holy Water” is still, “trying to get through to the man who” he’s trying to be, and is realizing he’s further away than he’d like. “Must Be the Whiskey” tries to find a plausible explanation for the turns life takes, while the Willie Nelson-esque “Somewhere Between I Love You And I’m Leavin’” captures a relationship at a breaking point. Jinks’ songwriting has always been strong, but with Lifers it feels like he’s coming into bloom; he’s had enough trips around the sun to write beautiful songs about what it’s like to be alive and struggling.
Jinks, I am contractually obligated to tell you, used to be in a thrash-metal band called Unchecked Aggression, before he accidentally backed into making country music. “You can’t make money playing metal unless you’re just one of the biggest of the bigs. I didn’t care,” Jinks told Rolling Stone Country in 2016. “I didn’t care about money when I got into playing country music. I didn’t even mean to start playing country music.” Aside from his prodigious tattoos and a beard that looks like it grows up into his face out of his sternum, there’s probably not much here that reads as a guy who used to play thrash, but you can hear the remnants of his metal days in the way that Lifers showcases his acuity with guitar riffs. He can go big and strummy (“Must Be the Whiskey”) and spaghetti western (“Desert Road”), and tightly wound (“Can’t Quit Enough”) and country western beautiful (“Head Case”).
Lifers is everything you could hope a follow-up to a commercial and critical breakthrough could be: a confident, perfectly crafted album that cements all the assumptions you had after the last album. Jinks is the real deal; he’s not putting on outlaw country as a mask or because it’s en vogue. He came to the life lessons and sound of Lifers the honest way, through hard touring and hard living, and now he's making the best music of his life.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.