The first thing you should know about Over the Rhine: All their favorite people are broken. They’ve spent the last decade closing most of their concerts with a song proclaiming as much, and on Love & Revelation— the first new Over the Rhine collection in close to six years— the prognosis doesn’t seem markedly improved. “I can fix anything except for me,” sings Karin Bergquist on the rough and tumble opener, “Los Lunas,” and what follows is a tender, album-length meditation on all things unfixable— broken love, crumbled empires, breached faith, bodies plundered by sickness and death. Love & Revelation is an album buffeted by trials, hounded by loss, stricken by a grim national mood; to the band’s enormous credit, it’s also unflinching and unsentimental. The wisdom of this record is how it chooses to abide sorrow, sitting with it, letting it linger; the aim isn’t to wallow but to acknowledge, to speak pain out loud, perhaps to be surprised by joy and healing. It’s an approach that bears fruit, as these songs are alit with moments of grace. “Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” Bergquist wonders on “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” the album’s hushed denouement. After 30 years praising the mutilated world, Over the Rhine knows good and well that irrevocable loss is part of the deal; what they have to offer is the small mercy of bearing a terminal diagnosis together, perhaps even holding their hand out and offering a steady sway.
A second thing to know about Over the Rhine is that they are specialists. With a few charmingly offbeat exceptions— the Technicolor dreams of Films for Radio, the buoyant brass in The Trumpet Child— they make records hallowed with slow, sad songs. The gamble of this self-produced album is that it leans into that aesthetic perhaps more than any other Over the Rhine record. That’s a feature, not a bug, and what you’re hearing is familiarity, not formula. Some of these songs they’ve been stretching out in their live concerts for years, and the resulting recordings feel as comfortable and lived-in as a favorite pair of blue jeans, all the stiffness long worn away. It’s not hard to imagine an embryonic version of “Los Lunas” that was tighter and stiffer in its spiked country-rock; the version here doesn’t rock so much as it rolls, its dusty drawl assured and endlessly appealing.
Though Over the Rhine has long pared down to the central chemistry of Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler, this marks their third record in a row supported by their Band of Sweethearts posse— synergistic studio pros Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keys), and multi-purpose guitar heroes Greg Leisz and Bradley Meinerding. Sensei Joe Henry, the original convener of the Sweethearts, is absent in body but present in spirit, and it’s to him that the album’s title is attributed. Detweiler’s piano, the anchor of so many classic Over the Rhine records, largely cedes the spotlight to the quiver and thrum of the guitars, which fill these lonely rooms with whispered memory and ghostly glimmers. You can practically feel those ghosts roaming through you on the spectral “Given Road,” where the pedal steel’s high-and-lonesome moan sends shivers and chill bumps. “Making Pictures”— the photo negative to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”— comes on as warm and gentle as spring’s thaw, while “Rocking Chair” lives up to its title with an easygoing front-porch gait. These songs are crafted so carefully and played with such gentleness and affection they sound like lost Over the Rhine classics, and Bergquist—with so many show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics already on her resume—mostly sticks to small gestures, quiet blues, magnetic intimacy; she’s the low-key MVP. There are some winsome surprises on offer, too: Detweiler and Bergquist blend their voices with sumptuous strings on “Let You Down,” wistful pop that’s as consoling as a favorite afghan. The title cut, where Bergquist sings over a cool rumble from Bellerose and Condos, hints at an alternate universe where Over the Rhine made it big as a drum n’ bass duo.
“Love & Revelation” is an outlier in another way, too: Amidst songs of experience, it sounds more like a song of resistance, Bergquist pledging her sedition from a semi-automatic Jesus (“they’d arm him to the teeth, but that’s not my belief”). The song suggests waywardness among the Good Shepherd’s sheep, making it an effective keynote for a record about holy and consecrated things gone to spoil—covenants broken, the human frame ravaged by time. Time does what it does on “Leavin’ Days,” and Bergquist lodges a psalm of lament born from saying one too many goodbyes (“I don’t like these leavin’ days”). Grief hangs heavy over “Given Road” (“I just miss the one that loved me”) and “Broken Angels” (“I want to take a break from heartache/ drive away from all the tears I’ve cried”), while “Let You Down” wrestles with things falling apart (“everything feels lost/ so lost it never can be found”). Bergquist cries a trail of tears on “Los Lunas,” a goodbye that’s wry with both acceptance (“one of us had to be gone”) and regret (“should’ve moved to Pasadena when we had the chance”).
These songs are plainspoken in their sorrow, but there is a third thing you should know about Over the Rhine: While they’ve never promised the leavin’ days weren’t going to come, they have long emphasized that none of us have to face them alone. They ratify their fellowship and solidarity again on Love & Revelation, tapping into a deep reserve of empathy that only comes through years of paying dues and saying goodbyes. “You can bet I’ll stick around,” offers Detweiler on “Let You Down,” and it’s a commitment made with eyes fully open; there are no delusions here about just how deep in the shit you can be. But if Over the Rhine’s body of work proves anything, it’s that deep shit can be a conduit for amazing grace; the album’s other Detweiler-led song, “Betting on the Muse,” unpacks the artist’s toolbox for turning darkness into light. Here’s what you’ll need: Eyes open to “all this blinding beauty” around you, a capacity for astonishment, a childlike sense of wonder, the laughter of recognition, and strength enough to weather whatever drubbings come your way. (“You’ve got to get taken for everything/ to have anything to give,” Detweiler notes; is this the opposite of Bono’s truism that “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief?”). Meanwhile, in “Making Pictures,” Bergquist pledges that “nothing goes unseen”—a reminder, perhaps, that pain isn’t wasted and everything exists within the scope of redemption. (Amy Helm paraphrase: “This too shall light.”) The album wraps up with a pronouncement of blessing, a frayed and whispered Detweiler composition called “May God Love You (“Like You’ve Never Been Loved).” It’s a bruised benediction for Over the Rhine’s favorite people: “We’re not curable, but we’re treatable/ and that’s why I still sing,” confesses Bergquist. So maybe Love & Revelation isn’t going to fix what’s broken; but at the very least, it finds some light in all we’ve lost.