MAGNET Exclusive: Full-Album Premiere Of Spencer Thomas’ “The Joke Of Life”

Spencer Thomas is no joke. The sadly beautiful, unassumingly wonderful The Joke Of Life has all the creative twists, timeless melodies and emotional resonance of one of those ageless ’70s singer/songwriter LPs you keep returning to: Warren Zevon, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney’s Ram. And while it may be a stretch to include Thomas’ second solo album in the same company as those classics, it certainly runs in the same social circles. The Joke Of Life is out tomorrow on Strolling Bones, but you can preview the full album below.

Thomas hails from Jackson, Miss., where got his start as the drummer, singer and songwriter for alt-country quintet Young Valley. He released his solo debut, Hangin’ Tough, in 2019, touring the country with collaborators Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (Water Liars) and Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers). A year later, Thomas was living in Athens, Ga., where he began working on the raw goods that would evolve into The Joke Of Life. Thomas produced the album with Ryan Engelberger at Athens’ Chase Park Transduction. He had help from Dave Barbe (Sugar), Jay Gonzales (Drive-By Truckers), Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), Kiffy Meyers (Futurebirds) and other Athens music-scene regulars. We fired a few questions Thomas’ way. Here’s what he had to say.

Musically and thematically, what are the most obvious differences between The Joke Of Life and Hangin’ Tough?
The short answer: I learned to laugh instead of cry. Hangin’ Tough was the typical debut-record story. I collected songs I’d written over the course of years to make my first mark as a “first name/last name” songwriter. That made me cautious about production—you can hear its rawness and minimalism. I was still learning to use my voice in the way that told a story, and I was still learning to play the keys with fluidity. The songs were more “me” focused.

The Joke Of Life shows maturity. I’d stared the depression described in Hangin’ Tough in the face—and I understood its sources enough to conquer them. Mostly. I got to know myself and gained insight into what made songs interesting to me, digging into artists like the Replacements, Leonard Cohen and Warren Zevon. I love the big, interesting instrumentation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies’ Man. I wanted that classic sound with modern capabilities. There’s more “he, she, you and us” on this album. I learned to take the magnifying glass off myself, and I found the humor and profundity in daily existence.

How did you fall in with Futurebirds?
I opened for them 10 years ago with Young Valley in Jackson. We made sure we were their opening band every time they came through Mississippi—we looked up to them. Thomas Johnson took a liking to my solo record; Daniel Womack and I covered each other’s songs on Instagram livestreams during the pandemic. Once I landed in Athens, Thomas invited me over to his house, and it felt so nice to just drink beer on a porch and jam on songs we liked. We all missed a bit of that in 2020. The next day, he asked if I could play drums for some backyard parties they were doing. A few months later, it was bass. A few months after that, I drummed on some demos. Then, they went to the studio with Carl Broemel to record their Bloomin’ EP and asked if I’d play keys. Basically, I made myself available until I ended up in the band.

Explain a bit about how The Joke Of Life was recorded. It was over three years, correct?
Oh boy … yes. I moved to Athens in August 2020. While I had some friends here, I needed to find the people who could bring this vision to life. That’s what took the time. Finding the right players, re-recording parts, overdubbing, editing … mixing, mixing and mixing. Ryan Engelberger and I had some serious edits to make, and (mixing engineer) Nate (Nelson) and I spent hours getting just the right balance for it all. I was just being careful. I can’t tell you how many mornings I listened to mixes and went over to Nate’s house saying, “Let’s tweak these two things.” Recorded songs are never done. You just need someone to tell you to stop.

—Hobart Rowland