Having enjoyed a cult reputation in Europe on import since its American release last year, the gravelly-voiced, heavily bearded Oklahoma songwriter John Moreland’s third solo album (he also has three fronting Black Gold Band/Dust Bowl Souls) finally gets a full release under the auspices of At The Helm, just in time to satisfy inevitable demand in the wake of his support slots opening for Jason Isbell.
While his formative years were in punk and the band albums rock oriented, these days he’s far more acoustic based and, if you need comparisons, then (although Steve Earle was a catalyst influence) Nebraska would be the most immediate. Indeed, there’s many a time, as on more stripped down numbers like 3:59 AM, where he could stand shoulder to shoulder with Springsteen and not suffer by comparison.
Lyrically, the songs generally revolve around battered relationships, self-reflection and the struggle to make it through in the face of an uncaring world, his words, literate and couched in poetic imagery, honest and cutting direct to the heart.
Set to a slow march beat and accompanied by organ, the album opens with I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am, a raw gospel-tinted confessional from a musician’s exposed soul and a search for identity in the face of those who “blow smoke in your direction til you don’t know where you stand.” This alone would be enough to convert the uninitiated, but there’s a further nine good reasons why he should be a part of your home.
Strummed on acoustic guitar, Blacklist is another Springsteenesque number about the end of a relationship, the hollowness of having finally made it and looking for a place to fit that features the striking line “we took a ride trying to hide from the god of early marriages and empty graves.”
His prowess in blue collar romanticism is further underscored on the shuffling Your Spell, a song of youth’s lost dreams as he sings “we were 18 years of anger bitter as the cold” and of how, ten years on, “all those pretty girls who looked like movie stars” are now “pretty ordinary… checking out at Walmart with babies in their arms.” It’s one of two numbers on the album that featured on Sons of Anarchy, the other being Gospel, a song about trying to escape from a nowhere life, to “drive like hell when I steal the devil’s Cadillac”, to “dust off the stars and hang them on the wall for you” and “find faith in records from long ago.” Addressing a similar theme, it matches Stolen Car ache for ache.
Elsewhere, driven by plangent guitars, the mid-tempo Oh Julia is another song about breaking free from the things that drag you down and hold you back (the bitter punch being that the narrator recognises that it’s him), while the gentle acoustic Break My Heart Sweetly is about one of those can’t live with, can’t live without relationships (“I worshipped at the altar of losing everything”) and the regret-stained God’s Medicine again talks of things slipping through your hands. The album ends with the spare and wearied Blues & Kudzo, once more looking to break free (“I stuffed my soul inside a suitcase and set out for the 305 highway”) and find a way to leave behind the chains and ghosts of the past.
It’s a stunning album that leaves you wanting to hear more. And, the good news is that it’s being released as the same time as his latest – High On Tulsa Heat, this time by way of Thirty Tigers. It is, essentially, more of the same. But in a good way, as, opening with the Earle-tinged, fingerpicked cracked and wearied Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars, he again explores themes of broken faith, love, failure and success while questioning his own abilities (the pedal steel streaked Heart’s Too Heavy opens on the line “ these angels in my eardrums, they can’t tell bad from good. I lived inside these melodies, just to make sure I still could”).
Where the previous album was primarily acoustic, here the sound is often more muscular and electric, as on the guilt-themed, melodically catchy middle-America rock Sad Baptist Rain with its wailing harmonica, the slow march rhythm Losing Sleep Tonight and the chugging title track as it builds to a lengthy scorching guitar playout.
But in all instances it’s the words that are Moreland’s solid bedrock. As he acknowledges on the nakedly confessional You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry he’s “damn good at sorrow”, to the point that he almost masochistic in the hurt he embraces, singing “I got a taste for poison. I’m giving up on ever being well, I keep mining the horizon digging for lies I’ve yet to tell” on the dobro-shaded Cherokee while on the simile-striking White Flag surrender to hurt he wants to “learn a new sickness and dance around forgiveness.”
But it’s not all so self-lacerating, American Flags in Black and White, on which he plays all the instruments, offers a thoughtful reflection on loss and blurry nostalgia (“your favorite version of the past”) in the lines “the things that made you feel so safe are only on a screen these days.” One of the many highlights on In The Throes is titled Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore. Moreland does. And he makes you do too.
Review by: Mike Davies
Both albums were released in the UK on 15 January 2016
Photo Credit: Joey Kneiser