In the life of a troubadour, is there anything more enticing than the love of a good woman and the lure of the road? The presence and promise of both loom large in singer-songwriter Jesse Terry’s sophomore album Empty Seat on a Plane. The record is less a collection of songs than an invitation to join Terry on an emotional odyssey. Empty Seat on a Plane is deeply personal, but not impenetrable to an audience.
Terry’s 2009 debut The Runner was a well-crafted, accessible folk-pop album that spoke of yearning for the seemingly unattainable, whether it be affection or peace of mind. His collaborations with other talented scribes accurately captured the restlessness of a youthful soul. However, if The Runner centered around a young man’s wandering spirit, the self-penned Empty Seat on a Plane revolves around a maturing man who’s drawn to the road, but no longer on the run.
Purposely sparse production lends Empty Seat on a Plane a light, unburdened feel. Producer Neilson Hubbard gives Terry’s lyrics and melodies plenty of room to breathe and never overpowers them with heavy instrumentation. While appropriate flourishes are added to songs (the organ vamp on the soulful “Bitterroot Valley” for one) the focus is squarely on the stories that unfold over the course of the album. The vivid imagery that was also present in The Runner remains, but the physical scenery also evokes an emotional landscape. Details of Terry’s travels (both literal and figurative) over land, sea, and air provide a lens into his personal reflections on love, fear, and mercy.
While many albums begin with an uptempo number to grab an audience’s attention, Terry pointedly avoids that practice on Empty Seat on a Plane. The languid title track gives listeners their first glimpse of the woman (Terry’s wife Jess) who sets the musical journey into motion. The song is not a typical “boy meets girl” narrative; rather, the audience meets the couple at a pivotal moment in their relationship when love causes the pair to take a leap of faith. Rather than return home, a crucial decision is made to remain: “You know we’re coming up on winter/You can’t stand the cold at all/But you chose to stay, anyway,” Terry marvels. The track lazily conjures images of the couple segueing into a new life, even as the world scurries around them. The song isn’t boring, but the message to the audience is clear: Pull up a chair. This story’s going to take a while.
The lilting “Grace on a Train” is the cornerstone of Empty Seat on a Plane. Terry acknowledges both his initial dismissal and eventual acceptance of grace: ”I know I listened to her then/But never thought of it again/Until I saw her face by chance/When my life jumped the tracks.” That realization lays the groundwork for his acceptance of all the events that will eventually occur in his life, including meeting his wife.
It’s that same grace that enables Terry to take his own leap of faith in the understated ballad “Tightrope.” A tasteful violin solo by Eamon McLoughlin underscores the beauty of the song. Emphasizing his own loss of inhibitions, Terry confesses, “In her embrace I’m left without armor.” That sentiment of embracing vulnerability in the face of love is later echoed in the sweeping number “Scared of Nothing”:
You and I, we lived our whole lives in a fortress
So I feel like I know where you’ve been
And I guess that you
Never really lose your scars from that
Until you truly find your other half.
Lyrically, Terry never settles for easy clichés about happiness, instead opting to explore the warts and rewards of relationships.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the considerably darker “Coyotes” finds Terry coming to terms with betrayal: “I remember them smiling/When they left me for dead.” Although tempted to succumb to a desire for revenge, he ultimately opts to leave the past behind.
In the age of iTunes, the audience might be tempted to pick and choose among the compositions on Empty Seat on a Plane. However, the songs are meant to be heard together. Each song is part of the journey, one that’s led Terry across the globe and back home again. Those who take the time to listen will be glad they made the trip with him.