Donovan Woods – Both Ways
Meant Well – 20 April 2018
Just twelve seconds into Good Lover, the opening track of Donovan Woods’ fifth album, Both Ways, I am already in extremely comfortable territory. A gentle Seagull M4 motif introduces Woods’ hushed, breathy voice – reminiscent of Sam Beam, Sufjan Stevens, or Horse Feathers’ Justin Ringle – and they remain alone for a full minute before the noninvasive introduction of a piano from Robbie Grunwald (Doug Paisley, Justin Rutledge, The Good Lovelies and more). Then it is past the two-minute mark before any other instruments appear, being the layered strings of Drew Jurecka (Jill Barber, Jeff Healey, Diana Krall) to provide an elegiac backdrop to the sparseness of an already beautiful song. Within this minor key setting, the lyrics are the sort of introspective melancholia never lost on me, with the Ontarian Woods contemplating the passage of time as he looks back at a relationship:
How did we both get so damn old so fast? / From a basement apartment to a time I can’t seem to sleep in past / That was back when I ain’t have (sic) much to sing about / Way back when I wrote a thousand songs no one cared about…
I have always been fond of such understated openings to albums, when from the top an atmosphere is created that demands the listener pay full attention. This mood is maintained, though lightened just a little, with the pretty, mid-tempo acoustic shuffle of Another Way, which boasts an intriguing narrative commencing with a wedding over the border. It is followed by Burn That Bridge, the album’s first single and a sonically muscular song examining a matter of the heart I personally relate directly to. Falling in love with a best friend – in my case with a woman I had known for eleven years – brings with it great risk and emotional complexity. Whatever the outcome, in so many ways it is a situation there is no going back from, one in which a bridge is indeed burned, never to be rebuilt. Via both the tense, though melodic, music and lyrics Woods successfully conveys the dizzy excitement and fear of such a development, and all kind of memories flood back for me when hearing lines such as:
I always knew it / We were taking the long way round / If we can do it / We’re gonna find out now…
In my instance, the relationship was doomed to fail, but enough of my ill-advised past dalliances; concerning the matter in hand, remembering that the following track, Truck Full of Money, is just three removed from the delicate opening cut, the shift in musical approach is huge. Swathed in Jurecka’s sweeping strings it may be, but this is epic ‘heartland’ rock of the highest order. Another shift occurs immediately with the quiet and unsettling Our Friend Bobby, which opens with the devastating lyric:
Cops found him on a Sunday / So we all met up Monday night / I guess we all kind of figured this might happen someday / It’s just a drag that we were right…
Wow. In the tradition of the great storytelling songwriters – the Dylans, Cohens, Prines and Kristoffersons of this world – Woods manages in just those thirty-two words to open up a whole world of not terribly optimistic narrative possibilities. From these opening lines, it would be easy to jump to conclusions, but that would only be doing the writer a disservice. From the clues, you perceive the story may unfold as you anticipate, or it may not. You can find out what happens for yourselves, but at this juncture, it is pertinent to note that Woods cites the eminent short story writers Alice Munro, Bronwen Wallace and Richard Ford as influences on his lyrical approach to Both Ways.
I Ain’t Never Loved No One is a gorgeous duet with Juno and Canadian Folk Music Award-winning artist Rose Cousins – typical of the calibre of contributors present – supplemented only by barely-there acoustic guitar and the briefest piano accentuation of the melody two-thirds in. In a collection of songs spanning a range of atmospheres, like Good Lover it absolutely insists that you free yourself of all distractions and really listen. Concerning the various moods created on Both Ways, credit is certainly due to producer/co-mixing engineer/contributing musician, James Bunton, who was also at the desk for Woods’ award-winning 2016 effort, Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled.
While a decent uptempo folk-rock number, the piano-led I Live a Little Lie is the least remarkable song in an album otherwise heavy with memorable material, but no sooner has it concluded than another surprise lands with the slow-chugging, 80s-flavoured, synth-y power ballad, Easy Street. It is an anomaly, certainly, but although stylistically alien to anything around it, somehow it works. On paper I Don’t Belong to You is another sore thumb, with a slow-building, dense rock assault underpinned by plinky-plonk banjo from Hawksley Workman and Grunwald’s Hammond organ, all at odds with Woods’ sweet vocal. But again, with these disparate elements in the mix he still pulls it off, and with just three songs remaining, it kind of promotes the sense of a big ending on the way.
And, after a fashion, that is exactly what happens. Firstly, the volume is turned down once more for the fragile Read About Memory, then further still – but only for a couple of minutes of another huge ballad, Great Escape. Then, drum roll, the big ending comes not with guitars blazing and a crunching rock crescendo, but in beautiful folk-rock style with one of the more moving story songs I’ve heard in, well, ever. Next Year looks at how, when life’s realities derail the simplest of best-laid plans, in planning to try again it could be that the opportunity might never come.
My brother and me used to climb this tree / We were going to build a little clubhouse, about ten feet off the ground / We drew the whole thing up / We needed wood and our dad’s truck / But he was out of work that summer, and the truck only had one gear / He said, ‘We’ll do it next year’…
Next Year is such a thoughtful, emotional way to bring Both Ways to a deeply satisfying conclusion, and had it been written by Bruce Springsteen it would be deemed a masterpiece. But as his previous four albums had already more than indicated, this highly visual storytelling style is Donovan Woods’ stock-in-trade, and with the great Munro, Wallace and Ford as his muses, it is in even sharper focus on Both Ways. This is absolutely primo Canadian roots music, entirely relatable, emotionally rewarding, and if, at the very least, it fails to gain a Songwriter of the Year nomination for the 2019 Juno Awards, it will be both bewildering and an injustice.
Donovan Woods will appear at The Borderline, Orange Yard, Manette Street, London, on Friday, May 25th – his sole UK tour date. See details below.
Donovan Woods Tour Dates