So Much Wrong Goin’ On: P!nk’s human condition

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Almost 20 years into her recording career, P!nk may have just now provided us the Rosetta Stone to her life’s work. In a song called “My Attic,” from her flinty and soul-searching album Hurts 2B Human, one of pop’s great survivors describes the inner sanctum where all her most closely-held secrets are kept behind lock and key: Internalized trauma, suppressed shame, creeping anxiety, unspoken confessions left to gather cobweb and dust. At the song’s start, P!nk cautions a lover against spelunking through all this accrued shit, but by its end, she’s cautiously optimistic that just maybe she’s found someone who loves her for her whole being– someone who can sort through the clutter in her attic without getting scared away. It’s a perspicuous metaphor for the harrowing nature of intimacy; how entanglement with another person can be liberating and terrifying at the same time.

This cocktail of trepidation and candor is a familiar theme in  P!nk’s songbook: As devotees know, she’s been granting us little glimpses into her attic since the beginning, and with each album she seems willing to open the scuttle just a little wider. When her first record came out in 2000, she was lazily lumped in with the teen pop crowd– she was 21 at the time– but by the release of M!ssundaztood she’d carved out a niche as the guardian and godmother of misfits and outcasts; she nurtured a community of Little Monsters long before Lady Gaga gave them their name. Since then, she’s weathered adulthood more gracefully than any of her contemporaries, and she’s focused her ministry among the m!ssundaztood by chronicling her personal crises with increased openness and heightened specificity. Funhouse was a divorce album; The Truth About Love a reckoning with the high cost of commitment; Beautiful Trauma a weary redemption of deep-rooted pain. Each of these albums smuggle confessional writing into glinting pop constructs, and taken as a body of work they signify a pop star who’s largely unequalled at projecting strength and badassery while remaining lucid about all the hurt she struggles to let go of; all the attic junk she’s hoarded that now crowds contentment out of her periphery.

If Hurts 2B Human doesn’t immediately stand out as a capstone or career-defining masterpiece– it’s another fine album in a catalog absent an indisputable peak–  it may well be the most intentional album P!nk’s ever made about finding peace amidst pain; the fullest flourishing yet of her tough-but-vulnerable style. These 13 songs amount to a personal inventory of all the ugly garbage she’s tried to shove into storage, here dragged into the light for a frank mental health evaluation. Of course some of the voices in her head are ghosts from past relationships; in “90 Days” she duets with Wrabel and channels anguish through the haze and swirl of Autotune, reasoning that a stint in rehab could help her kick drugs or drinking but there’s no place to go when you need to kick a broken heart. In “Happy,” she sounds like she’s using the tools she developed in therapy, confessing to issues with body image, pining for pharmaceutical intervention, psychoanalyzing herself, and landing on the breakthrough revelation that she’s “just scared to be happy.” The therapeutic modality continues in “Courage,” about finding the resolve to make healthier choices when there’s greater comfort in familiar dysfunctions. And “Can We Pretend” takes to the dancefloor for catharsis and escape, a temporary detox from a life of worry and beleaguerment. “Can we pretend that we both like the President?” P!nk chuckles, one of a couple of references here to how cultural and political dislocation can bleed into inward despair. (“There’s so much goin’ wrong outside,” she confesses on “Walk Me Home,” sounding battered but not defeated.) Like Sara Bareilles’ elegant Amidst the Chaos, Hurts 2B Human feels marinated in perilous times; political tumult isn’t the subject, but it is the point of view.

P!nk’s graceful maturation is born out not just in the level-headedness of her mental health inventory, but in the music itself. Nobody makes record like she does, albums that are hip without ever feeling desperate, but also old-fashioned without being stodgy or staid. Though she’s sanded down some of the rough edges from her earliest music in favor of smoother pop textures, she remains anchored in the arena-swelling structures of rock: In “We Could Have it All,” written with her old pal Beck, she sings over an electric pulse and a pouding chorus, post-morteming a relationship that crumbled despite all the odds being stacked in its favor. (“There were no black cats in our path,” she sighs; sometimes the only explanation is that things fall apart.) And in “Walk Me Home,” written with her old pal Nate Ruess of .fun, she demonstrates the ease with which she navigates humanistic anthems, a bit of The Lumineers’ big-footed stomp thrown in for good measure. But she’s never more comfortably in throwback mode than she is when finessing ballads, whether sleek and steely (“90 Days”), string-swept (“My Attic”), or cracked and frayed (the raw acoustic closer, “The Last Song of Your Life”).

P!nk is a classicist but not a dinosaur, and she’s always had smart instincts about how to fold contemporary sounds into her out-of-time constructions. “Can We Pretend,” featuring Cash Cash, channels EDM glitter into contoured AAA pop, while the lithesome opener “Hustle” bristles with horns, sound effects, casual defiance, and cheerful profanity. She brings in king-o’-Americana Chris Stapleton for “Love Me Anyway,” adding some rough and tumble to one of her most doleful weepers. All of these subtle metamorphoses ultimately end up sounding like P!nk, an artist omnivorous enough to stretch herself but self-sure enough to never make it sound like a reach. One of her most dexterous stretches here is in “Hurts 2B Human,” a wounded ballad tricked out with an electo-stutter and a low-key vocal assist from Khalid. Here P!nk sings of human fracture not as a symptom to be cured but a chronic condition to be managed; for close to 20 years now, she’s been showing us how.

Beyond Boundaries: The radical neighborliness of Rhiannon Giddens

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There’s a righteous word for the third Rhiannon Giddens album, made available to us by the Anglican priest Oliver O’Donovan. Litigating the ethical demands of Jesus Christ, O’Donovan writes, “Xenophilia has been commanded us: the neighbor whom we are to love is the foreigner whom we encounter on the road.” That same spirit of xenophilia emanates from there is no Other, nothing if not an exercise in radical neighborliness. Your first clue is the album title (including its stylized capitalization), a declarative statement with an attending moral imperative: Giddens conceived the album as a rebuke to othering, which tells us to fear the sidelined Samaritan, the wayfaring stranger, the alien and the immigrant in our midst; to apprehend their humanity as discrete from our own, if indeed we acknowledge it at all. Xenophilia offers no quarter for such separations, requiring not just that we affirm humanity when we see it but that we actively seek ways to esteem it. It asks us to maximize our moral bandwidth, perceiving every person we encounter as a neighbor to be welcomed and embraced. That’s a tall order, but Giddens’ album rises to the occasion, never preaching its point but proving it both formally and aesthetically. There is no Other amounts to an oral history of the cosmic neighborhood we share together, pieced together from porous and borderless folk traditions, sounds and cultures that bleed into one another, roots that run deep and in perpetual entanglement.  These songs come from street corners and mountain hollers, from juke joints and royal opera halls. They revel in the overlap of regional vernaculars, standing in defiance of taxonomy and hierarchy. They offer a multitude of ancient and not-so-ancient witnesses, attesting to the interconnectedness of human experience.

Giddens made the record with Italian virtuoso Francesco Turrisi, whose piano, accordion, and hand percussion accompany her array of stringed instruments; on four songs, they are joined by Kate Ellis on cello and viola. There are historic links between the folk instruments employed, and deep connections between the American and Mediterranean idioms they articulate, but you don’t have to be a musicologist to pick up on the spirit of fluidity and cultural cross-pollination; indeed, what’s always made Giddens so effective as a folklorist is that she values ancient texts not for their amber preserve, but for their mutability. “Gonna Write Me a Letter” is an old bluegrass rag, here dominated by Turrisi’s clamorous frame drum; the song’s cast in a low-end rumble that feels closer to the speaker-shaking dynamics of hip-hop than to the high-and-lonesome key of a string band. That same jostling physicality can be heard on “Pizzica di San Vito,” a buoyant dance number performed here with locomotive momentum, Giddens bouncing crisp Italian syllables off one another as Turrisi’s jangling percussion provides rattle and thrum. That’s not the only song that leans on Giddens’ apprenticeship in the opera; she sings everything here with magisterial command and regal phrasing, not least a couple of actual opera tunes. The famous “Black Swan” aria sounds less like a theater piece than a weird backwoods fairy tale, ominous and grim, while “Trees on the Mountain,” from Floyd Carlisle’s Susannah, transmutes the flair of the theater into the dusty plainspeak of folk music. Such boundaryless invention abounds on there is no Other, where Giddens and Turrisi rough up their classical music with the gutter panache of rock and roll, cast Appalachian tunes with a Middle Eastern canter, bathe jigs and rambles in a mystic glow, and make show tunes sound raucous and earthy. It’s no surprise at all that the album sessions were overseen by producer Joe Henry, unparalleled as a wayfinder along the haunted back roads of folk tradition; indeed, the most helpful antecedents for this record might be The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes, a pair of uncircumscribed reckonings with jazz-as-folklore that Henry made with Allen Toussaint, the latter album enhanced by two show-stopping vocal assists from Giddens herself.

The revelation in all of this is that songs and folk grammars are bridges to one another, entryways and corridors in the neighborhood we inhabit; that there’s ultimately no such thing as island or isolation. (“This ain’t no archipelago,” Andrew Bird might hasten to add.) Giddens makes that point explicit in her original “Ten Thousand Voices,” a dirge that drones and swirls like Arabic music and introduces the album with a web of mutuality; the songs we sing and stories we tell are but pieces of a larger mosaic, it suggests. A few of these songs present us with immigrant encounters. Another original, “I’m on My Way,” has a co-writing credit from Henry; it’s a vagabond’s clanging blues, finding meaning in the journey even as the destination remains unsure. (“I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time/ Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine.”) Giddens also sings the standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” long the anthem of pilgrims making progress, here rising from the steady pluck of a minstrel banjo to the misty splendor of Turrisi’s accordion. It would almost be perplexing if this album didn’t have a song or two associated with Nina Simone, still the patron saint and north star for any artist whose aim is to evade being captured by category, and a thumping take on “Brown Baby” feels like the record’s linchpin; it’s the plea of a mother who hopes to leave her child with a better world, when the only inheritance she can really offer is the song itself, ratified anew by one generation after another. A pair of instrumentals speak volumes, in particular Giddens’ title track, where banjo and frame drum sparkle with symbiosis, completing each other’s sentences. And in “He Will See You Through,” the closing hymn of perseverance and preservation, Giddens does for church music what she does elsewhere for opera, stripping it of ritual to reveal the emotional utility and ancient wisdom at its core.

Indeed, maybe ancient wisdom is another helpful way of receiving this record. Describing the culture of America in the 1960s, Joan Didion wrote that it was a time when “no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” It’s hard to imagine a markedly improved prognosis today, but there is no Other offers grounding and connection; to a birthright of songs that exist beyond boundaries, and to the only neighborhood in which such songs could ever grow.

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

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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.

So I’ll Know What it Feels Like: On Sara Bareilles’ plausible deniability

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When Sara Bareilles announced the release of her sixth album, she promised a patchwork of love songs, breakup ballads, and hymns to the exemplary grace and decency of the Obamas. It’s that last part that suggests Amidst the Chaos as a topical affair, one that lingers over faded glories as a way of avoiding contemporary traumas, but the songs themselves are more circumspect, and better because of it. Only on the closing “A Safe Place to Land,” where Bareilles and John Legend pronounce a benediction of courage over border detainees, does the album’s currency become irrefutable. Everywhere else, plausible deniability abounds. You could listen to any one of these songs and reasonably assume it’s about romantic triumph or folly. And yet, there’s plentiful insinuation that these songs were marinated in the times; as critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, the album’s very title is a valuable and blunt shorthand for what life feels like in America circa 2019, and if Bareilles’ songs don’t have political weariness as their object, they suggest it as their point of view. In a masterclass of subtext, implication, and poetic imagining, Bareilles bears witness to what it means to maintain a joyful countenance when a rancorous national mood sweeps into the cracks and fissures of everyday living; what hard work it is, and how necessary. Meditate, if you will, on the words of “If I Can’t Have You,” a wistful chronicle of having, losing, and choosing gratitude over regret: “If I can’t have you/ then I’ll have to find a way to get through/ Though I don’t want to/ I have to do my best to recall/ That I’m thankful that I held you at all.” She could be looking back on a lost love or an evaporated civilization; either way, who couldn’t relate? There’s also “Saint Honesty,” where Bareilles summons the better angels of candor and truth—the truth that sets captives free and clears our path through any manner of bullshit. And what about “Eyes on You,” where the world’s spinning fast and out of control, but Bareilles chooses to hold her head high and keep her eye on the prize. Make of it what you will, and apply it to whatever tribulations buffet you. Its admonishment is simple and profound: Know hope. These songs are confident in their point of view, which means they don’t have to trip over themselves to pluck references from the latest headlines; they do something more valuable by capturing the blustery weather of a tumultuous planet, acknowledging the way in which cultural turmoil bleeds into personal dislocation, and providing sanity-saving articulations of resilience.

More than any of the five albums that preceded it, Amidst the Chaos makes its case through understatement and reserve. Up to this point, Bareilles has always thrived by blowing up her Carole King troubadour roots into widescreen, Technicolor pop confections; she knows how to apply studio sheen to sturdy bones, which is how “Love Song” became ubiquitous without becoming obnoxious. But to make Amidst the Chaos she stepped outside of her comfort zone, enlisting the venerable T-Bone Burnett to produce. He surrounds Bareilles’ piano with a multitude of session pros, among them mighty drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner; bass stalwart Dennis Crouch; ax slinger Marc Ribot; soundscaper Keefus Ciancia; and Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan on harmonies. They stick to small gestures and intimate performances, warm and largely acoustic but never austere or inert. Burnett’s reputation is as a folklorist, and he does help Bareilles trace some of her roots; she sticks to the bluesy low end of her piano on the rumbling “Armor,” writes stately gospel in “Saint Honesty,” and creates shimmering soul perfection in the gently propulsive “If I Can’t Have You,” the kind of song you’d love to hear on an album by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. But what Burnett understands is just how little polish Bareilles needs for her songs to sound colorful and epic, which many of these do: “Eyes on You” sprints toward euphoria, while the opening “Fire” stokes glowing embers into a raging chorus. Just like Bareilles’ words, the performances convey clear emotions without overselling, her dramatist’s zeal kept in check by her devotion to careful songcraft.

Blessedly, Bareilles finds space for peace within the chaos: Reprieves come in the sultry sway of “Miss Simone” and the smoky reverie “Someone Who Loves Me”—the former a scene of everyday tenderness and romance, the latter a trust fall into the arms of an unfailing partner. She allows herself to shed light on all she’s (we’ve?) lost in the twinkling melancholy of “No Such Thing,” but ultimately realizes the futility in obsessing over the past (“I can’t fix it by fixating on a rewind,” she acknowledges.) That’s not to say that the past can’t illuminate the present. Check the bellicose “Armor,” where Bareilles traces a lineage of strength and resilience that runs through all the women who’ve come before; “strength means blessed with an enemy,” she intones, her resolve forged in the fire of tribulation and emboldened by the generations that blazed her trail. And in “Orpheus,” she spins familiar lore into an allegory of perseverance. “Hold me in the dark and when the day appears/ We’ll say we did not give up on love today,” Bareilles pleads; love blooms and hope springs in the land of the dead, because where else are such things to happen? These songs are saturated in joyful intent even as they’re littered with signs o’ the times, and none strike that balance more rousingly than “Fire.” Here, Bareilles documents a love she thought would last, now reduced to ash and rubble. “Someday, I won’t have to feel the cold/ But I do now so I’ll know/ What it feels like when I feel fire,” she declares. It’s a prophetic word for anyone enduring cruel winter, but knowing in their hearts that springtime will come again. No need to spell it out further: You know exactly what it is she’s talking about.

Always Been in My Nature: Josh Ritter’s history of violence

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Like Martin Scorsese and Cormac McCarthy, Josh Ritter is drawn to histories of violence. In songs about misbegotten wars and gun-toting vigilantes, he’s traced the gnarled roots of American bloodshed, untangling the particular strains of solitude and exceptionalism that give birth to sainted renegades and self-justifying killers. These themes are well-documented in the folk tradition, and Ritter presents them in all their dread and allure. Consider a song like “The Temptation of Adam,” where two lovers fumble to make a life together in the shadow of the atom bomb, its imagery suggesting that the instinct to unleash carnage looms large over even our best intentions and purest inclinations; it’s emblematic of Ritter’s dogged chronicle of our collective heart of darkness. Consider also a composition from his album So Runs the World Away, where Ritter rummages through the haunted graveyard of American song and story for scenes of brutality and vengeance, assembling them into stomach-churning pastiche. The title of the song: “Folk Bloodbath.” In it, Ritter sounds like Indiana Jones coming face to face with the flesh-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant: A committed scholar and folklorist, he’s dug too deep and seen too much to return unrattled to the land of the living.

Fever Breaks—Ritter’s 10th studio album—opens with the kind of song he was born to write; not merely a continuation of his excavations, but one of the deepest digs yet. “Ground Don’t Want Me” is a gunfighter ballad, belonging to a folk lineage that encompasses both Marty Robbins’ big-iron epics and Guy Clark’s wistful revisions. Ritter inhabits a man living under a curse (“you’ll never get to heaven, son, so go to hell real slow”), fated to roam the Earth as an unbeatable quick-draw. No matter how many impossible, hopelessly outgunned situations he puts himself in, he somehow always blazes his way out and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake (“for every man a box, for every hole a rose”). He becomes a kind of ghost, wandering from town to town weighed down by his murderous guilt, envying the many men he’s sent to peaceful rest but unable to find it himself. The song reveals a writer who’s all but unequalled at finessed metaphors (“I’ve stacked the deck, I’ve held a dead man’s hand so many times”) and mordant prose (“in every town the brokenhearted rang their steeple bells”), but it’s his moral clarity that cuts deepest; Ritter’s gunfighter is being eaten alive by sin and shame, and he’s resigned to the fact that his past has prescribed his future, that the blood he’s shed has stained his soul. (Devotees may find it rewarding to imagine that this is the same boastful gun from 2007’s “Mind’s Eye,” brought low by time and conscience.)  Later in the album, Ritter reckons with an even ancienter tradition in his hardscrabble performance of “Silver Blade,” a song he originally wrote for Joan Baez; it’s a murder ballad about a maiden who escapes her villainous captor only by lodging a knife between his ribs, then using the same blade to dig the man’s unconsecrated grave. The lyrics include an insouciant forensic account of the deceased’s worm-ridden body, corporeal evidence of a toppled tyrant and lawless justice. It’s a mythology of violence rendered in flesh and bone; it establishes Fever Breaks as another folk bloodbath.

It might almost be unbearable were it not also exhilarating—a robust and freewheeling record that’s unlike any he’s made before. For that you can give much of the credit to folk hero/rock and roll warrior Jason Isbell, who produced the record in Nashville and plays on it with his well-decorated band the 400 Unit. Their most obvious contribution is muscle, and in “Old Black Magic” they provide the headliner with the most raucous moment of garage-rock mayhem in his entire catalog; he sings himself ragged just to be heard about the din of the guitars and the bleat of an organ. Yet Isbell and his troupe are as much about brains as brawn, and what makes them so symbiotic with Ritter is how nimbly they can adapt to the needs of his rich, varied songwriting: The 400 Unit crunches and grinds on “Losing Battles,” skips and gallops across “On the Water,” conjures dark storm clouds and ominous flashes of lighting on the sinister and dramatic “The Torch Committee.” Boon accompanist Amanda Shires, a blessing to every record she’s on, gives “Silver Blade” its sharp edges through flinty fiddle playing, while the band digs deep for both groove and twang on the loping “A New Man.” For all the ground covered here, Isbell’s most critical effect is to bring focus: Fever Breaks feels clean and compact with its 10 songs in 45 minutes, almost the opposite of Gathering’s rambling generosity.

The depth and breadth of these performances are the backdrop for wide-ranging Ritter originals that interrogate folk forms and elucidate all the lessons he’s learned about our appetite for destruction—one of the most significant lessons being that the true violence is the inner violence, the most rancorous battle the battle against the self. Ritter pines for rebirth in “A New Man,” and over the din of “Losing Battles” he casts the pursuit of justice as both a noble calling and a fool’s errand (“sometimes the righteous win,” he sings—but most times…). That same song suggests a history of violence encoded in human DNA, situating these calamitous mythologies under the Mark of Cain; “it’s always been in my nature to be the beast,” Ritter admits, facing down the man in the mirror like Nick Lowe did in “The Beast in Me” or Richard Thompson in “The Rattle Within.” Elsewhere, Fever Breaks studies the violence of separation. “I Still Love You (Now and Then),” one of Ritter’s most brutally understated divorce songs, finds a lovesick man chronicling the wreckage of his life as though describing the ruins of a battle field. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Fever Breaks is that violence to others is always, ultimately, violence to the self. “The Torch Committee” is the album’s dramatic fulcrum, a political allegory narrated in detached deadpan and outlining step-by-step the ways in which fear is weaponized to divide a people from itself (“sadly it’s the awful truth/ it’s them or us, it’s them or you”). And in “All Some Kind of Dream,” Ritter surveys the state of our crumbling ideals through the eyes of the immigrant and the refugee; the wayfaring stranger and the kids in the cages: “There was a time when we held them close/ and weren’t so cruel, low, and mean/ And we did good unto the least of these/ or was it all some kind of dream?” It’s a psalm of lament for a country that’s lost itself in an abattoir of its own making, but in the closing “Blazing Highway Home,” Ritter dares to dream there’s a road to peace somewhere, in this world or the next. It’s not much to go on, but when even hope can seem like a losing battle, it may be just enough for now.

Whistles Right Past You: Andrew Bird says to hell with this

my finest

“I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster,” sings Andrew Bird on his new album, persuasively titled My Finest Work Yet. “The end just has to be near.” It’s not the first time he’s portended the apocalypse. More than a decade ago, on an album called The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird painted a strangely reassuring picture of societal collapse, even promising there’d be snacks. These days, his outlook is less rosy. “The Earth spins faster, whistles right past you/ whispers death in your ear,” Bird laments. Those whispers come in different keys— gun violence, rising tides, the dead ends of nationalism— but while these 10 new songs are littered with the ruins of empire (“they say Rome wasn’t built in a day/ but it all came down in the month of May”), the larger issue is how the hard work of neighborly love and participative democracy has been replaced by the comfort and convenience of disembodied online rancor. Bird’s distressed but never despairing record is a challenge to log off of Twitter and get back to the grind; it’s both a call to activism and a clarification of what meaningful activism actually entails. “No more excuses, no more apathy,” one song says; the world groans under the weight of indifference, but My Finest Work Yet lights a fire. “We’re gonna turn it around,” Bird pledges, because what other choice do we have? As Flannery O’Connor would say, the life you save may be your own.

Bird underscores the high stakes with some of his most direct writing to date—though such things are always relative. He still rattles off wry tongue-twisters (“for those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn/ you know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice”), and pivots easily to historic allusion (“it feels like 1936/ in Catalonia”). Jokes about J. Edgar Hoover bump up against references to King Ghidora, and just leave it to Andrew Bird to contextualize some of his most straight-ahead topical truisms (“history forgets the moderates”) within a retelling of Greek myth. Sisyphus, legendarily forced to spend eternity rolling a heavy stone up a mountain, has long been an emblem of complacency or addiction, and Bird’s iteration makes sure to acknowledge the collateral damage left in his wake (“had a house down there but I lost it long ago”). But where the Sisyphus of lore remains eternally stuck in his rut, Bird’s character has enough, and becomes a hero just for refusing to push his burden any further. “Did he raise both fists and say, ‘to hell with this’/ And just let the rock roll?” Bird asks, finding holy purpose in noncompliance. The song becomes a wondrous meditation on the blessedness of whole-assing when half measures offer greater comfort: “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god,” Bird’s Sisyphus thunders, preferring a leap of faith into the abyss over remaining in stasis any longer.

But Bird neither fails nor flails here. My Finest Work Yet does indeed feel like a consolidation of strengths—plucky, funny, sophisticated, tuneful. You’ll only need to listen to these songs a time or two before you’re able to whistle along, something Bird does often, imbuing his songs with just the twist of whimsy or shadow of menace they require. The whimsy is balanced by a jostling physicality; Bird produced the album with Paul Butler, favoring live vocal takes and the crackling energy of a small band—splashes of piano, upright bass, guitar, crisp snare pops and cavernous rim shots from boon drummer Abraham Rounds. Bird’s violin is the anchor, gently plinking out tunes and then cresting into ravishing melody. His music can conjure a full range of motion, and several songs sound like they were made to move bodies: “Proxy War” rises and falls with the buoyant bounce of Motown, while “Don the Struggle” works like a wind-up toy, a stately march suddenly exploding into frenzied dance. Even working in an intimate framework, Bird shows an easy way with dramatic build-up: “Archipelago” has enough whoah-ohs to fuel an Arcade Fire song, while “Olympians” gallops and then sprints on its way to a fist-pumping chorus.

In every way, these are songs of action and idealism, even as they acknowledge inertia’s sweet seductions. “Bloodless,” a slinky cabaret, imagines a moral landscape where the good guys equivocate, the evil are truly evil, and most of us stagnate in the murky middle; we just “hem and we haw,” Bird opines, and you sense that he’d almost rather you goose-step with the fascists than sit on the bench. (“Because you are lukewarm,” a relevant Bible verse says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”) Bird posits that the powerful have a vested interest in sowing division, just so long as it doesn’t bubble over into actual revolt: “They’re banking on the sound and fury,” he observes. “Makes you wonder what it’s all got to do with me.” He answers his own question on “Fallorun,” where gossamer violin notes build into U2-worthy euphoria, and where the state of our union has plenty to do with all of us. “We could have been together/ But you couldn’t stand the weather here,” he mourns, and he could be talking either to a faithless lover, a wayward neighbor, or anyone who’s ever talked a big game but then buckled when the shit hit the fan. The song appeals to those who take a stand without making a sacrifice, channeling all their moral fervor into empty and ego-stoking gestures. “You think you’re making choices,” Bird sings, “But there’s no one really here/ Just tone-deaf angry voices/ That are breathing in your ear.”

Bird’s idealism may initially scan as overly earnest, but what he’s offering here is counterprogramming for a kind of false idealism, the one that says the people who talk the loudest are making the biggest difference. Crucially, for all the album’s concern with bridge-building, My Finest Work Yet doesn’t dispute the existence of injustice, nor does it suggest we acquiesce to it. Enemies are invoked a few times; an oblique reference to an abominable “Man of the Year” entry is the closest Bird gets to naming a particular boogeyman, while on the winding “Archipelago” he suggests that we define ourselves largely by the people we choose to hate. But while Bird spurns fearmongers, he stops short of disdaining them, understanding it to be short-sided and self-destructive to do so: “Now there are no sides,” he moans, democracy’s wreckage strewn at his feet. “Try selling that one to an angry mob.” He understands what James Baldwin was talking about when he said, “what you do to me, you do to you”—that ultimately, we sink or swim together, that violence to the Other is violence to our whole body. That’s why My Finest Work Yet bets everything on the painful and necessary work of incarnation and intimacy; in “Proxy War,” online discourse is contrasted with “real life,” where words have the power to draw blood and stop time. In “Sisyphus,” love is the precipitating force in our hero’s unburdening; “it’s got nothing to do with fate and everything to do with you,” he confesses to an unnamed beloved. And in the closing “Bellevue Bridge Club,” Bird threatens to pull his slumbering partner out of bed and onto the floor, promising paradigm-altering, empathy raising scenes “of life beyond your front door.” There, just across the threshold, opportunity abounds for connection, for justice, for truth and reconciliation—but unless we’re vigilant, it’ll all whistle right past us.

Map & Compass: Navigating nostalgia with Leo “Bud” Welch and Dee White

angels

The singer and songwriter Sam Phillips once joked that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” She was probably on to something, but two recent albums on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound imprint offer reason to think anew about how we engage with the past. One album finds an octogenarian bluesman singing songs from his childhood, decades of lived experience instilling them with new meaning. The other finds a 20-year-old country singer escaping into a romanticized past he’s far too young to remember, creating an idyll that’s part historic replica and part day dream. Taken together, these records demonstrate different ways in which memory—personal or cultural— can help us make sense of the present.

The bluesman is Mississippi legend Leo “Bud” Welch, whose recording career began when he was 81 and ended just four years later, with his death. The posthumously released The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name is only the third album in a tragically slim catalog, yet its scant 27 minutes feel loaded with the wisdom of a lifetime. Welch had to have known his time was running out when he chose these 10 gospel standards, songs rooted deep in the soil of the Christ-haunted South. Most of them will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a big tent revival or Vacation Bible School, and Welch himself spent his whole life playing them. And yet, by the sound of this record, they were still teaching him things, right til the end; here he treats his material not as historic artifact but as map and compass for the last leg of his journey home, looking to the songs he grew up with as a way to direct his final steps. What they offer is a model for approaching death with dignity: They emanate Christian assurance (“I Know I Been Changed”), steel against Satan’s advances (“Don’t Let the Devil Ride”), and pine for the nearness of the Shepherd (“Walk with Me Lord”). That they might resonate with an ailing Welch is no surprise, and though he’s never glib about facing mortality, he never sounds rattled by it, either; in “I Come to Praise His Name,” Welch storms the gates of heaven with thanksgiving on his tongue and joy in his heart. He locates a utility in these songs that his younger self couldn’t have grasped, and they give him a personal vocabulary for articulating the dimming of his day with peace and contentment.

That joyful countenance spills over into the performances themselves— quick and loose sessions that crackle with the electric energy of Auerbach’s band The Arcs, a far cry from the po-faced austerity you might anticipate from a twilight-years reflection like this. Though Welch clearly wasn’t in the prime of health when he cut this record, his righteous witness imbues everything with solemn authority; he mumbles with confidence, croaks with conviction, bellows with glee. He and the band blaze and howl and drone through the setlist with an appealing looseness, to the point that you can occasionally hear Welch mutter performance instructions, seemingly to himself. (“I wanna do another fast one, now let’s see…”) As the album’s producer, Auerbach is shrewd enough to leave the focus primarily on Welch’s voice and skeletal guitar work—on the opening “I Know I Been Changed,” the artist is accompanied only by the luminous shimmer of an organ—but he also orchestrates some cheerfully raucous mayhem: “Jesus is on the Mainline” is a big-footed stomp that shakes and rolls with jangly percussion and church piano; “I Come to Praise His Name” is frenzied call-and-response; “Right on Time” is a jocular country shuffle. Welch’s version of the Sunday School favorite “This Little Light of Mine” (here dubbed “Let it Shine”) is about the gnarliest you’ll ever hear; it’s as if the seeds planted in childhood have blossomed into a mighty and weathered oak, its leaves rustling in the wind but its roots as strong as ever.

You could say that Alabama’s Dee White is at the other end of the spectrum in almost every way. Born 60 years after Welch, his interest in the past is one of revival rather than reappraisal; where Welch’s album makes ancient songs sound new again, White’s keen on generating new compositions that sound like lost relics of yesteryear. His yesteryear is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, an era alluringly replicated on the Auerbach-produced Southern Gentleman. Soft and supple, the album ably weds countrypolitan extravagance to the wispy harmonies of Laurel Canyon folk, the booming theatricality of progressive country thrown in for good measure. Recorded with the Easy Eye house band—some of the same Nashville studio pros who played on Yola’s magnificent Walk Through Fire, augmented by luminous harmony singer/White super-fan Alison Krauss—Southern Gentleman is absent grit but hardly absent groove, as evidenced by the opening “Wherever You Go,” soft-touch Dixie funk that almost could have fit on a golden-era Little Feat record. Auerbach and White are fastidious in their attention to period detail, which includes florid orchestrations, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and plenty of high-and-lonesome pedal steel. It’s all anchored by White, a prodigiously out-of-time singer whose honeyed tenor can drop into solemn spoken-word asides just as easily as it crests into clarion falsetto. Auerbach and the Easy Eye gang christened him Boy Orbison for these sessions, which tells you plenty about his vocal purity, his seriousness, and his nose for good melodrama, and it seems unlikely that White would quibble with such an auspicious nickname: He’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide, something you can tell from the sepia-tinged narrative in “Bucket of Bolts,” where he looks back with fondness on his first car and on the “good ol’ pals” of his adolescence. (It can’t be emphasized enough: The dude was 20 when he cut this record.)

White’s commitment to a bygone era means his lyrics slip easily and often into old-timey vernacular (“preacher man;” “give that southern belle a ring;” “swimmin’ in our birthday clothes”),” and his halcyon vision of the South—one absent cell phones or political tension—is wholesome enough that the album’s moments of lustiness generally just consist of references to skinny-dipping. They’re clearly songs of innocence to Welch’s songs of experience, and where the elder performer looks to his past to illuminate an uncertain future, White seems more interested in using the past as a shelter from the treacherous present. That may sound like he’s on the wrong side of nostalgia, and certainly Southern Gentleman toes the line, but anyone who hears the album as pure escapism is overlooking its moments of real turmoil and angst. On “Rose of Alabam,” White narrates a scene of infidelity with flowery prose (“the petals of my daisy hit the floor one by one”), and on “Road That Goes Both Ways” he’s joined by fellow country upstart Ashley MyBryde for a pained duet about two separated lovers. On these songs, he’s not merely replicating or romanticizing the past, but looking to it to for a language he can use to express complicated emotions—not unlike what Welch does with the old standards. But perhaps the greatest validation of White’s stylized nostalgia is that, even as he recreates the sounds of a lost or imagined era, he never sounds painted into a corner. On the contrary, he finds immense freedom of expression across these songs, which are all so unerringly detailed that you’ll have to check the liner notes to determine the lone semi-obscure cover in the bunch: There’s breezy effervescence in the swampy two-step “Old Muddy River,” enveloping melancholy in the sadsack sway of “Oh No,” operatic dejection in the soaring arrangements of “Way Down.” Perhaps what both albums prove is that memory, however slanted, can be a source of empowerment, and that reimagining yesterday can provide signposts for navigating today and tomorrow.