"Sometimes I feel like the sky is a prison and the earth is a grave," Jim White growled on his amazing 1997 debut. The Pensacola singer's new album, Transnormal Skiperoo, is preoccupied with religion, as per usual, with tracks like "A Town Called Amen" and "Pieces of Heaven." But the most probing song about God on Transnormal contends with the deity in a different form. "Plywood Superman" is a hauntingly stripped-down ballad about a promotional stand-up gathering dust in the back of a drugstore. "He never saves no one from nothing," White mourns. "He just stands there looking sad."
White is absolutely, unmistakably Southern—a categorization that he has both encouraged and subtly grappled with over the course of his career. Drawing endless inspiration from the astonishingly distinct and eccentric culture of the Florida Panhandle, White often seems to wear his Southern heart on his sleeve, carrying on in a line of oddballs that includes Harry Crews and Flannery O'Connor, but the singer's brilliance shines brightest when he leaves the yokel schtick in the backseat of his rusted Corvair. Before landing a record deal with Luaka Bop, White spent time as a NYU film student, professional surfer, and oddly, a model in Milan. When his worldly depth is given room to breathe without being forced into a "Southern" matrix, White's spaced-out, country-folksy tales of providence, longing, and ghosts rank among the most moving music I've ever heard.
The Deep South is inextricable from religion, and White was raised in a devout Pentecostal home where televangelists were unironic, familiar faces on the TV. As White transformed his life into one song after another, he naturally returned to the evangelical exoticism of his upbringing. His albums, then, are filled with religious imagery and unforgettable characters that sing hymns in the rain, see ghosts in the middle of the night, and howl for unknown forces to "take them away."
But in the midst of White's religious-kook narratives, there is also a distinct and genuine thread of searching—if not for a wrong-eyed Jesus, at least for a deeper connection to some greater power. I asked White if singing about both his own spiritual path and self-styled Jesus freaks was difficult, since the language and lingo overlap, even when the beliefs don't. "It doesn't bother me at all that language is limited," he drawled. "It's liberating to know there's something ineffable lurking behind every word. Words are prisons—the ineffable is comforting. If not, all there is, is all we make."
There is a great deal of both liberation and ineffability on Transnormal Skiperoo, which is a welcome rebound from White's uneven 2004 album, Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See. Most strikingly, the singer sounds liberated to make an intensely personal album, rather than to tell the tales of other weirdoes and fanatics. And it can't hurt that White has finally come to know Jesus. "He's a short-haired Mexican friend of mine," he reveals with the comforting tone of a man who's finally found something that he's searched for his whole life.