On the cover of Rayland Baxter’s 2012 debut album, the Nashville folk singer portrays himself as a longhaired, mustachioed rambler with holes in the elbows of his denim shirt. He’s covering his eyes in the “see-no-evil” pose, but on feathers & fishHooks, Baxter confronts some of those troubles of lost love and foolish actions through fingerpicked guitar ballads full of honest admissions.
Three years later, Baxter cleaned up for his second album cover. Half of his chiseled, now-shaved silhouette is masked in the shadows while the other half stares you down like you’re now the one performing those evil acts that shall not be seen. Likewise, Imaginary Man also reflects that cleaner aesthetic and purposed direction.
Unfortunately, this new focus serves to dismantle the myth of the aimless wanderer Baxter so convincingly constructed on his debut. Imaginary Man opens with a synthy, bass-heavy thud, immediately casting away any assumptions that this sophomore effort would serve as a continuation of where Baxter left off on feathers & fishHooks.
The son of pedal steel player Bucky Baxter (whose credits have appeared on Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and R.E.M. records), Rayland melds this traditional country twang with newer experimental sounds. The elder Baxter does, in fact, play on Imaginary Man, joined by a muddled string section on “Oh My Captain,” a lightly distorted electric guitar lead in single “Yellow Eyes,” and extra-terrestrial attempt at communication in the Mac DeMarco-esque “Freakin Me Out.”
The unifying thread between Baxter’s two efforts is his slowly warbling tenor. His familiar, yet, unusual yearning punctuates songs like the two-and-a-half-minute acoustic “Rugged Lovers” and the similarly spare, album closing “Lady of the Desert.” But mostly, Imaginary Man sounds like Baxter composing a conscious push to the mainstream. It’s just that his previous, strange, and wanderlusting alter-ego seems to capture more curiosity.