“No turning back, I gotta get out of town,” Jesse Smith sings on Leaving Atlanta‘s “What Did I Do.” Four years in the making,Atlanta power-pop king Gentleman Jesse’s sophomore album was inspired by a series of wildly unfortunate events in his life. The album is dedicated to friends he lost to cancer (ATL punk staple Bobby Ubangi) and drugs (Jay Reatard), and in the time between his debut full-length and this one, Smith had his nose broken in a violent mugging, the result of which graces the cover of his 2010 HoZac single. For a time, it seemed like the only away Smith could get away from the drama would be to flee the city.
But, as he told ATL alt-weekly Creative Loafing in a recent interview, “Atlanta is like an abusive lover that you can’t leave.” And even on opener “Eat Me Alive,” one of the album’s strongest statements musically or otherwise, Smith sings that “this city’s trying to eat me alive,” but tempers the statement instantly with the follow-up, “it’s as good a place as any to try to survive.” A handful of Leaving Atlanta‘s tracks reinforce the album title’s thematic leaning, but there are also songs of triumph (“Rooting for the Underdog”), and lost love (“You Give Me Shivers,” the fantastic “I’m Only Lonely [When I'm Around You)]“) mixed in throughout.
While the years may have been rough on Smith, they’ve been kind to his songwriting. As he’s admitted frequently, the former Carbona rarely emphasizes lyrics, instead focusing on titanic melodies and infectious guitar licks. And yet, Leaving Atlanta boasts several inspired lines. Milton Hammond’s organ parts flesh out the arrangements, and three-part harmonies delight. There are several distinctly Springsteenian moments, too, and these, along with an utterly dark tale of a killer on the run (“What Did I Do”), show that Smith is not content to be “The Power-Pop Guy” forever. Much like his self-titled debut, Leaving Atlanta concludes with a quintessential closer, this one called “We Got to Get Out of Here.” As the groove-locked tune barrels along, it becomes clear that the “here” in question could be referring to a negative mindset as much as a locale.
“I know you’re feeling kind of uptight/ but you should come out with me tonight,” Smith sings on “Kind of Uptight.” Is he talking to a girl? Maybe, but it could just as easily be a self pep talk to and from a guy who needs to break free of the drudgery of a city turned against him. After all, you can give up on a situation when things get difficult, but it takes real character to push forward and find the bright spots, even if they’re obscured by all manner of death and nastiness. Or to take on an optimistic attitude, as Smith sings in the very same song: “Everything will be all right/ So, come on, and take my hand tonight.”