BUILD A BRIDGE
by Josh Hurst
Or: Vince Gill’s habit of being.
Though “Lovesick Blues” is best known as a Hank Williams composition, it actually didn’t come from the country godfather’s pen at all; it’s an old Tin Pan Alley pop song that Williams refashioned for his own purposes, given a country inflection but retaining its shape as a carefully considered blues. That’s a revealing insight into the DNA of Williams’ music, perhaps of classic country song craft in general: For all their affectations of down-home simplicity, great country songs tend to be sturdy formal constructs, deploying many twists and tricks from the songwriter’s toolbox, great sophistication in service of emotional simplicity. Their very sturdiness is what makes them enduring: These songs are built to carry weight; they’re built to hold up. A song like “Lovesick Blues” is poetry at its most naked and direct, an expression of human desire that is profound precisely because of its spare verbiage and its emotional accessibility. It is little wonder that, as his life entered a season of turmoil and upheaval, Elvis Costello set aside his own wordy compositions in favor of pared-down Williams, Charlie Rich, and George Jones tunes, all recorded for an album called Almost Blue; these songs, Costello would later confess, more precisely expressed his tortured state of mind than any of his usual puns or innuendos.
The highest compliment you can pay to Vince Gill is that he is a country songwriter from exactly this tradition. He is country through and through, but not in a way that feigns backwoods authenticity. His country is both more direct and more all-encompassing than that; he is a craftsman, and if his songs aren’t blessed with flashiness they do have tremendous staying power. What seems simple at first gradually betrays a full array of songwriting tricks. Gill’s songs are straightforward in their humanity, relatable to anyone with two ears and a heart, but the pleasures in their craft take a few listens to unspool. And on Down to My Last Bad Habit, those pleasures are more compact and insidious than ever. While These Days spent four whole discs tracing country’s lineage through bluegrass, honky tonk, and pop, this album is a bit more coy in its complexity, more casual in its virtuosity. “Me and My Girl” may well be colored with some dobro and steel guitar, and the weepy “Sad One Comin’ On” earns it dedication to George Jones, but this album also has room for “I Can’t Do This,” which scales the same emotional heights as a Burt Bacharach song. Underneath its twang, “Me and My Girl” moves from verse to chorus to bridge with all the deftness of a Beatles song, racking up hook after hook in just over three minutes, and Gill’s guitar pyrotechnics on “Make You Feel Real Good” are exactly as appropriate to this album as Chris Botti’s trumpet work on “One More Mistake I Made.”
For an album given to careful craft over flash and gimmicks, it’s only appropriate that the songs here are songs of experience—songs of committed, long-term love. They play out like scenes from a marriage—and in just a few cases, from a marriage laid to ruin. There is desire here, but nothing like the carnal rush of teenage infatuation. Joy is linked with fidelity, not the rush of the new. Pleasures are simple, and heartaches are taken in stride—trials that last for a season. In many ways, the album would make a strong thematic companion to Joe Henry’s Invisible Hour, another meditation on love as a commitment; a habit; a verb to be taken anew with each day, not a noun to be possessed and forgotten.
There is a sense of contentment even in the sad ones. “Down to My Last Bad Habit” is a lover’s plea from a man whose rabblerousing is done with; he’s tasted and seen the sensual pleasures of this world and it’s cost him the love of his life, but what he’s gained is clarity. Everything that’s ever tempted him has lost its taste and meaning, diminished by love’s true light. He’s grown up and he’s moved on, and in doing so discovered the one thing he can’t leave behind: “Well I don’t roll with the boys no more/ I quit everything you left me for/ The one thing that I’ll always be addicted to/ Oh I’m down to my last bad habit—you.” The song hinges on that central metaphor, which is obvious just from the title—but then it’s not meant to be surprising: The song’s reward is in how the tale plays out. For all the songs that compare love to addiction, this one stands apart for its slow burn: It’s not about a high, but an ache in the night; it’s not about a rush, but a dependence. Gill plays it like grown-up soul music, supple grooves colored by mournful guitar licks.
There are other sad numbers, too, though not all of them sound that way at first. “Reasons For the Tears I Cry” opens the album with crisp snare drums, cool keyboards, and doo-wop harmonies; it’s a classic soul number that could have come from Smokey Robinson’s pen, even as its lyric proudly joins the ranks of great country songs about lovers a-leavin’. On the other side of the journey there’s “Sad One Comin’ On,” a sadsack’s lament that mentions a beat-up six-string in the first verse and an abandoned bar room in the second, every shuffled snare, weepy steel guitar lick, and high-and-lonesome harmony vocal underscoring the song’s enveloping, lived-in melancholy. Yet it’s never depressing because it’s not really about a sad situation; it’s about a song’s ability to make us feel things, something shared by great country and pop standards alike and well evidenced here by “I Can’t Do This,” the kind of huge ballad on which Gill first made a name for himself. The scenario here is a man watching the woman he once loved out dancing with another man; and he just looks on, “like comin’ up on a car crash.” It’s schmaltz, but in the best sense: Honest emotion delivered with earnestness and candor, and supported by supple craft. The story is told in the Dionne Warwick heights of the chorus but also in the little details in the lyric, like how the narrator recognizes the woman’s red dress—the one he used to see hanging on their bedroom door. The song isn’t “She’s Your Lover Now.” It’s abject despair, given careful shape by three-and-a-half minutes of emotive writing and singing.
That same flourish of craft animates the happier songs, too, which define the album’s restful, contented air. What sells the contentment is how Gill packs it with sensual pleasures: Quiet fidelity may not be flashy, but neither is it boring. “My Favorite Movie” shimmers like a doo-wop song, its lyric celebrating domesticity in the face of time’s advance and the culture’s sales pitch for cheap romance; it’s the flip side of the rabble-rouser from “Down to My Last Habit,” a song for someone who has realized before it’s too late that the real fun is in stillness with his beloved. “Make You Feel Real Good,” meanwhile, is a sex song—and the pleasures here are plentiful, both in the music and the lyrics, crisp snare drums, barroom piano, wheezy harmonica, and coy guitar licks underscoring Gill’s come-ons; he’s listened to enough old blues songs to know that automotive and train metaphors never go out of style. “Me and My Girl” lists all the good things—back-porch pickin’, fried chicken, windows-down driving—that pale in comparison to moments fully, presently experienced with the beloved; it’s got an insistent beat adorned with glowing steel, soulful harmonies, twang, electricity, and euphoria. Committed love and everyday grace deserve a joyful noise, and Gill makes one here.
“Like My Daddy Did” is the record’s sweetest tribute to marriage as an act of bridge building, and the slyest deployment of Gill’s songwriting skill. This one’s a wedding song, and the song title is a phrase on which the whole thing hinges. In the first verse, a woman admits that she’s been skeptical of love ever since her father ran out on her—but in the second, her lover looks back fondly on his own father’s fidelity, and knows in his heart that there’s enough love and trust for the both of them: “When it comes to love I’m the trusting kind/ There ain’t no scars on this heart of mine.” But in the final verse, it’s not about him, but them—fearless love forged between the two of them. The song is about the sins of the father, the ghosts of abandonment—but also marriage as an act of creation, and love as something that is gracious and unafraid and keeps no record of wrongdoing.
Song and marriage are metaphors for one another on this album, and Gill’s writing gives existential witness to the deep truths he’s conveying: With love and with songwriting, there’s something to be said for a patient unfolding, an everyday faithfulness, a mindfulness in the mundane. Both are habits of being—and in immersing himself in these decidedly non-flashy, non-glamorous moments, Gill extracts the common grace within them.
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Read Stephen Tomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
- Read Jewly Hight’s NPR review.