It’s been five years and another Willy Vlautin novel since The High Country, but the highly revered alt-country Portland outfit is back with more hard luck stories, again produced by John Morgan Askew and with Vlautin, drummer Sean Oldham, guitarist Dan Eccles and Paul Brainard on pedal steel now joined by new bassist Freddy Trujillo, replacing Dave Harding who guests on acoustic, with Jenny Conlee from The Decemberists on keyboards. It will, however, be their swansong.
“This record was written for all the guys we know who have hit the wall, are about to hit the wall, or are in the middle of slamming into it,” says Vlautin. “It’s a record about paying the price for the way one’s lived.”
As such, a brief melancholic acoustic guitar instrumental, Leaving Bev’s Miners Club At Dawn, atmospherically introduces proceedings and sets the mood for what follows, the first song coming with the reflective, Dylanish Wake Up Ray, Vlautin’s cracked and dusty voice sounding like a world weary Steve Forbert while the resonant guitars and keys evoke a widescreen vista with an almost 60s feel.
As the final outing after a 20-year career, it’s not looking to explore new territory, but it revisits old ground with the same insights and compassion for the characters as when they first began. As you would expect, it’s built around stories, indeed the whole idea of the album began with the tale of two cowboy brothers who get stitched up when their uncle sells the horses. Running into him some years later, they find him broke and busted but decide there’s no point kicking a man when he’s down. Not when he’s spent his life kicking himself. That turned into Whitey and Me (Don’t Ride Him Down) while coming across an old blind horse. Left alone to die, the helpless and discarded animal is both the inspiration for the sparse, pedal steel led instrumental The Blind Horse with its sad vocal howl, but what it represented also feeds into several of the other characters. You’ll find it on Ray, in the guy in I Got Off The Bus (from whence comes the album title line) who’s come back home after all his bridges and dreams have gone up in smoke only to find himself no less broken and alone, the loser begging for another chance on Don’t Skip Out On Me as Eccles’ guitar soars over the background organ and pedal steel, and the self-explanatory barroom sway that is Tapped Out in Tulsa.
Given the band’s best known for its slow, ruminative style, it’s a surprise to come across the relatively uptempo Let’s Hit One More Place, a let’s have one for the road alt-country number led by snare and organ, and the skittering train time rhythm Two Friends Lost At Sea, the embittered character unconvincingly claiming he doesn’t give a toss if his ex plays his old Armstrong records to her new lover or makes him pancakes in her underwear.
Nevertheless, it’s the swamp of misery where they are most at home, such as on the stripped down, sing-speak raw folksiness of the black hole sucking in the broken lives of the characters in Three Brothers Roll Into Town or the catalogue of urban despair that is I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up And Remember.
The finest five and half minutes though are arguably those of the mid-life crisis documented in the brooding, noirish, nihilistic A Night In The City that sends the protagonist out to a strip bar with his equally disillusioned co-worker looking to escape the wreckage his world has become. Finding no salvation, he gets drunk stays out all night, throws up and goes to work in the morning, asking if life has come to nothing but a one night rebellion against the emptiness.
Conjuring thoughts of Tom Waits, the album plays out on the sad, noodling saloon piano accompanied Easy Run, a brief moment of hope that, while you may be surrounded by reminders that it probably won’t, “someday it might happen for you.” It’s the only reason to get out of bed in the morning. That and buying a copy of this CD.
Review by: Mike Davies
In a message on Facebook, back in January, Willy Vlautin announced:
“We all wanted to make one more record after The High Country. Our founding member, Dave Harding moving with his family to Denmark stopped us for a long while, but we were dead set on one more. I wrote You Can’t Go Back… to give an end piece for all the characters who inhabited the world of Richmond Fontaine over the years. Throughout the new record are hints of past RF albums and nods to past locations that the characters had found themselves in, and always they’re drifting and searching, hoping for a decent place to land. In the end they try to go back home where they were when RF first began. It’s where the characters started and now where they’ll end. RF has had a great 20 + year run and these guys are my best pals so it’s a tough decision but the right one. We’ll tour this record for as long as we can and then we’ll a have a knock down drag-out party, wake up with a hangover, and move on.”
Released March 18th via Decor
Order via Amazon
Also being released as LP on Yellow colour vinyl with DL code & print insert for Record Store Day.