Jesse Smith, of Gentleman Jesse, was walking through an Atlanta parking lot when he spotted a group of teenagers struggling to swap out a flat tire. A self-proclaimed “gentleman,” Smith was the kind of guy who’d help you with a flat. He was also the prime target for a mugging.
Smith woke up in an ambulance — the last thing he remembered was getting clubbed in the face with a table leg. He spent the next month recovering in a bed. Then his father died. It had been a couple years since Smith’s 2008 debut, Gentleman Jesse and His Men, but it was time to hit the basement for some songwriting sessions– that, or quit music altogether.
Considering the circumstances, Smith could have forsaken his sugary guitar pop for something broodier and dwelled upon his darkness like so many musicians before him. Instead, he began writing songs about coping with and overcoming that darkness, songs that eventually became Leaving Atlanta.
Opening track “Eat Me Alive” ostensibly references the adversity Smith faced in wake of the album. He sings in the chorus: “This city’s trying to eat me alive/It’s as good a place as any to try to survive/But if you keep your head down, you’ll push on through.” Perseverance is a conceit that runs through the entire record. Smith augments his words of self-encouragement with appropriately upbeat power pop that recalls Elvis Costello without sounding dated. “You Give Me Shivers,” with its spastic rhythms and glam strut, could have came straight out of the late Jay Reatard’s songbook, which is no surprise considering the two were friends.
Smith’s formula grows redundant, however, and at 13 tracks, Leaving Atlanta has its share of filler. The underwritten “Kind of Uptight” and “What Did I Do” warrant being skipped in favor of their catchier counterparts. And it’s not that these songs are exceedingly unpleasant — it’s a matter of moderation. Listening to Leaving Atlanta in its entirety is like eating 13 miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in 37 minutes: The delectability fades with each bite.
Gentleman Jesse’s positive energy is as infectious as the hooks in his songs, but it’s the sonic uniformity of those songs that make Leaving Atlanta overbearing when consumed as a whole. Not that it matters. To criticize the album is arbitrary. Leaving Atlanta means more to its creator than it ever could to its listeners.
Essential Tracks: “Eat Me Alive”, “You Give Me Shivers”, “We Got to Get Out of Here”