No Good When I’m Alone: Out on the wire with Shovels & Rope


Is it true that perfect love casts out fear? You’re liable to think so after spending time with the seventh Shovels & Rope album, a simultaneously tender- and lionhearted record called By Blood. Since last we heard from them, the husband-wife team of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have become parents a second time over, and they spend these 10 new songs wrestling with family and all of its attending anxieties: How can two shambling and fallible human beings possibly do right by their precious and vulnerable progeny, let alone each other, here in the world where things fall apart and moth and rust destroy? If those questions put you in the headspace of Birds of Chicago and their beloved Real Midnight, another heartfelt reckoning with parental jitters, then God bless you. But where the Birds waxed eschatological, seeking joy and peace in a world hellbent on its own destruction, the Shovels document a more internal struggle: What they’re weighing here are the rigorous demands of family life against the dearths and deficiencies they bring into it. “I’ve been a disappointment from time to time,” understates Hearst in “The Wire,” and what spouse or parent or sibling couldn’t relate? The harsh light and high stakes of responsibility illuminate personal failings with a surgical precision, and Shovels & Rope devote more than a few bars to cataloging the ways they come up short. (“I’m prone to swing at mirrors/ I interrupt slow talkers/ And I need everyone to like me,” Hearst sings, an unsparing self-review.) But if family’s a pressure cooker, it can also be a support group, resource center, rehab program, and indeed a lifeboat for the shambling fools who see their own imperfections in light of their beloved and realize that they’re better off sticking together. “I’m looking out for you,” Trent thunders in one song. “Are you looking out for me?” In another, Hearst gives her answer: “I won’t fail you when I walk out on the wire,” she vows, determined not to let her anxieties become sandbags when her tribe’s counting on her to stay aloft. Maybe no family’s love is perfect, and maybe no parent is ever truly without fear—but at a minimum, By Blood bears witness to the emboldening effects of belonging.

These songs teem with joy and tension, failure and glory, so it’s only fitting that they’re married to the most unruly arrangements of any Shovels & Rope record to date. Trent and Hearst recorded the album at home and played most of the parts themselves, and the resulting collection pushes roots-rock austerity into the grubby margins of tumult and din. Scrappy acoustic guitar chords share space with pummeling drums and gnarled riffs, all while synths hiss and gurgle in the background, husband and wife crooning and yelping, raging and moaning. Just as the songs testify to the sanctifying effects of domesticity, the music finds clarity and sweetness within some of the harshest elements of the country and rock idioms: “The Wire” is razor-edged new wave, cool punk verses exploding into a boisterous chorus, while the fiddle-led “Hammer” dishevels its own folksy flourishes with lurching beats and cacophonous swells of noise. For a band that built its reputation on rustic simplicity, they conjure arrestingly vivid hues on “I’m Coming Out,” where the stomp and fuzz of The Black Keys collides with the psychedelic swirl of The Beatles, and they spark ignition out of the fumes of resentment on “Mississippi Nothin,’” which distills Springsteen’s blue-collar indignation into a four-minute primal howl. Most of the lyrics are delivered by the duo in frayed and not-quite-perfect harmonies, their voices bleeding into one another just as the tail end of one song bleeds into the opening strains of the next: They share sweet, single-mic intimacy in the wistful “Good Old Days,” and call out to one another from across the world or maybe just across a crowded bar on the dog-eared power ballad “Carry Me Home.”

All that bleeding befits an album about how the lives we share, their joys and their sorrows, spurn any effort at imposed order or segregation. By Blood arrives mere weeks after Julia Jacklin’s Crushing, a study in the perils of proximity, and in many ways makes for an illuminating counterpoint: Jacklin warned against the inevitable loss of self that comes from union with another, but Shovels & Rope often sound like they’re finding themselves through entanglement. “I’m Coming Out” references metamorphosis and beholds a transformation– at the beginning Hearst says she’s weak and small, by the end she’s suited for battle and ready to draw blood– but the song’s not a before-and-after so much as a both-and, an admission of how relationship can haul our best and worst selves to the surface, where they co-exist and frequently butt heads. Sometimes, transformation seems impossible. “Mississippi Nothin'” documents two people who’ve known each other since they were kids and now find themselves on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum; for the life of him our narrator can’t figure out how he wound up on the bad side of the chasm, nor how to make up the distance. And in “The Wire,” Hearst confesses “I’m no better than I’ll ever be,” a frank admission of limitation that might remind you of a Bob Dylan lyric (“as great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself”). Other songs are more hopeful: “C’mon Utah!” is set just after the collapse of a quasi-hypothetical border wall, and finds a dad riding like hell to reunite with the family from whom he was separated; and “Hammer,” a scruffy take on the traditional work song, could very well be about the unglamorous and never-ending labor of self-improvement. These songs are aspirational, their characters imperfect but straining for something better, and the Shovels convey the strain as something holy in its own right. Consider “Good Old Days,” where Trent sings to his partner: “Now you’ve been reborn, and I’m still a mouse in a maze/ And I’m singing out to you.” It’s wrenching not least for how viscerally he hungers and thirsts for righteousness, longing for something his beloved has and he knows he lacks. Tellingly, she’s singing the same words right back to him; the pursuit of righteousness is the work of a lifetime, it seems, and it’s not meant to be done in isolation. “I’m no good when I’m alone,” howls Trent in “Carry Me Home,” a line that may as well be the record’s thesis statement; in every sense, By Blood ratifies the sanctity of union, and affirms two strivers and seekers who are better for having found one another.

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