The Heart Off Guard: Joe Henry holds on to his hat

the gospel according to water review

Joe Henry provides us with countless invaluable images across his new album, The Gospel According to Water. One of the most poignant is a scene from the title song, where the narrator sits at his windowsill and watches a procession of people parade by; each keeps their hat clutched tightly in hand, guarding against the fitful squall they know must come sooner or later. Henry takes it all in from behind a pane of glass, and sings with the quiet authority of a man who knows what it’s like to have the hat blown off his head. The Gospel According to Water is the 15th Joe Henry album, expanding a rich catalog of songs that reckon with blustery weather by all its various names— cruel fate, ravenous time, fickle providence, the slipstream of mystery. It is also the first Joe Henry album to arrive following a blindsiding cancer diagnosis late last year, each of these 13 songs written in the aftermath of the big shoe’s drop. A cruder man might say that shit’s gotten real, but with Henry there is always a deep reserve of eloquence. “Shadows lead us onward/ the darkness still at play,” he offers in a song called “Mule.” He’s been writing for years about how the dark itself proves a guiding light, how struggle is the mustard seed from which hope springs— and now he’s left with no choice but to believe it. Perhaps it is right to say that these new songs are similar in kind but different in clarity to the songs that came before them; that they hover over familiar concerns but exert a new kind of gravity. They’re songs forged in the refiner’s fire. They’re the sound of rubber meeting the road.

Refinement is a good way to think of this album, though that’s more a matter of happenstance than intention. The entirety of The Gospel According to Water was recorded quick-and-dirty in just two days’ time, initially meant to be a data dump for Henry’s publisher. It wasn’t until he listened back that Henry realized the lucidity with which these recordings speak, the lack of any need for additional polish. They are released here more or less as-is, though anyone expecting the jagged edges of, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska will want to check their assumptions at the door: These songs are beautiful and deep, autumnal in their tone and unhurried in their pace, and they all sound crisp, clean, and complete. The biggest tell to the serendipitous nature of these sessions is the absence of drummer Jay Bellerose, long a fixture of the Joe Henry players; you won’t hear any of his rolling thunder here, but you will hear fleet-fingered acoustic guitar lines from Henry and from John Smith; sparkling piano work from Patrick Warren; understated melodies from reed man Levon Henry, whose smoky sax and clarinet wind through a handful of songs. On two selections, you’ll hear harmonies from the unassailable Birds of Chicago, summoning rapturous soul. There is some of the same loose, brambly spirit that characterized Henry’s previous record, 2017’s feral Thrum, but this one is decidedly less prickly and more serene; the kind of quiet that commands active attention and full engagement.

Ever since Reverie, Henry’s songwriting has moved further from folk traditions and closer to poetic ones, meaning his lyrics aren’t necessarily linear so much as they are impressionistic. The Gospel According to Water feels like a purification of that approach; indeed, there may be no songwriter currently working whose lyrics work as well as standalone poetry (maybe Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission), and Gospel is the rare album that may be best experienced by reading along with the words, where you can see them arranged on the page in neat stanzas. Consider the tidy couplets in “Green of the Afternoon,” which the novelist Colum McCann rightly situates in the mystic lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I mean to sing of love that goes uncured–
You come to me and silence every word;
You come to me and silence every word…
But what goes unspoken may not go unheard

Henry understands the formal power in such tight, carefully structured writing, which might explain his ongoing allegiance to standards. At least since Scar he’s written songs that sound like tattered pages from the Great American Songbook, and The Gospel According to Water includes some of his most desolate, his most melodically robust. “Famine Walk,” the spindly album opener, sounds like a wee small hours confession from some alternate-universe Frank Sinatra, laid low by grievous loss, hollowed out by a few too many things that didn’t go his way. The sighing “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” with a wistful moan from Levon, could pass as nightclub fodder from the world of Jim Jarmush’s zombie movie (“the dead from here, don’t stay dead long”). But the album’s most distinctive feat of songwriting is “Orson Welles,” a character sketch that belongs in the category with Henry’s previous songs to Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. This form is associated with Henry in the same way that blue-collar malaise is associated with Springsteen, sexy Bible stories with Leonard Cohen, triple-decker puns with Elvis Costello; his song for Welles isn’t Wikipedia-style recitation but a tender, first-person reckoning with a man who ascended too high and too quickly, and now must make peace with inevitable decline (“if you provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll provide the war”).

There is enormous temptation to consider the album solely in light of its backstory, to hear it as a “brush with mortality” album along the lines of the latter-day Johnny Cash recordings, perhaps Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But while the songs here are informed by recent trials, they resist any effort to hear them as songs about cancer, nor even songs about death. The larger concern is living in uncertainty, locating a personal center of gravity in a world where there’s never firm footing to be found; following the shadows as they point toward the light. “How is it we’ve held out through all of these rumbling years/ that rush like the wind from our sails in a tumble of tears?” Henry asks in “The Book of Common Prayer,” and it’s a useful framing question for the songs that surround it. For his part, the narrator in “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children” ascribes titles to the heavenly bodies that spin ever beyond his reach, telling himself he’s imposed order on a vastness untroubled by the vanity of his decrees. In “Bloom,” the singer imagines time as a couple of freight trains, rumbling past him in either direction; he’s left standing at the station, capturing a moment’s clarity in a tumble of romantic verse.

Several songs in Henry’s Gospel employ the language of religious pilgrimage and devotion, though it’s always with a tacit rejection of anything overly dogmatic. “Not all are saved, not all of us care to be,” he admits in “Green of the Afternoon,” dismissing the idea that peace is found in the grip of assurance, asserting instead a kind of contentment found in the quest itself, a surrender to impermanence and uncertainty. Another white flag is unfurled in “Choir Boy,” the gnarled and off-kilter closing song, which includes the closest thing this album offers to prescriptive advice: “Raise your hands above your head and hold the air/ kick your keys in front of you into grass and leave them there/ surrender everything back to the ground.” Sometimes, surrender isn’t entirely optional. The man in “Famine Walk” speaks to “the heart off guard but ever opened wide,” sounding as though he’s been robbed of anything to cling to save his own trembling vulnerability. (“You’ve gotta get taken for everything to have anything to give,” an Over the Rhine song counsels.)

The true Gospel religion is ratified in “The Book of Common Prayer,” where all of us are bound together in acknowledgement of “love and the breach it repairs.” With any luck, a copy of this record will find its way into the hands of Nick Cave, who, following the tragic death of his teenage son, spoke about loss as a catalyst for radical openness, empathy, and zeal for human connection. Like Cave’s Ghosteen, Henry’s album reckons with private catastrophes but refuses isolation; its woundedness points toward the grace and understanding we owe one another, and to how we find our bearings not in relation to the shifting ground but to the neighbors reeling and scrambling alongside us. “In Time for Tomorrow,” ravishing pastoral folk, sounds like a word of resolve from two lovers whose intention is to put their season of bereavement behind, no matter what circumstance dictates. And “The Fact of Love,” so big and dramatic one’s tempted to call it a power ballad, casts its eye to an uncertain horizon before doubling down on love’s invitation here and now. “The hour now is hanging free/ and the stars are still above our heads,” sings Henry. How’s that for good news?

By the Grace of Your Strength: Redemption songs from Our Native Daughters

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You might not expect there to be any dance tunes on Songs of Our Native Daughters. This is, after all, an album released on Smithsonian Folkways, an imprint famous for its scholasticism. It’s named in homage to a James Baldwin collection. Its liner notes contain assiduous footnotes and recommendations for further reading. The songs– all 13 of them– trace the long tendrils of the African slave trade; give names to the skeletons that still rattle in our closets; linger long over violence enacted on the bodies of black women. It is unflinching; demanding, even. And yet, less than four minutes in, there it is: “Moon Meets the Sun,” featherweight and buoyant in its gossamer banjo rhythms, an airy mbaqanga dusted in American ash and clay. It almost sounds impossible, and it’s not even the only dance tune on the record: A late-album highlight called “Music and Joy,” creates wide grooves through sparkling polyrhythms, offering just what its title advertises. So if you read the album’s elevator pitch and want to psych yourself out of it– if you assume its achievement is academic, that it’s a righteous and necessary album but ultimately a harrowing listen– don’t. Lean in and you’ll discover a record that’s musically deep and robust; songs that ask us to sit with atrocities but not to settle for them. Remarkably, Songs of Our Native Daughters is both unsparing in its witness-bearing and uncompromising in its sweep of redemption. “We smile to the sky/ We move to stay alive/ And we’re dancing,” one song beams; this music is based in scholarship but enlivened by the resolution to wring joy from desolation; to mine the unthinkable for wisdom and light.

It’s no surprise that a project like this would spring from the mind of Rhiannon Giddens– celebrated folklorist, deep conceptual thinker, minister of neighborliness, curator of what she dubs “black girl banjo magic.” There’s plenty of that here thanks to the convening of blues conjurer Amythyst Kiah, borderless folk visionary Leyla McCalla, and luminous Bird of Chicago Allison Russell, all of them writing, singing, and playing multiple instruments. Even the assemblage of this group, like the summoning of The Avengers, feels momentous; a reclamation of folk forms often supposed to be indigenous to white, rural America but actually rooted in the African diaspora, nurtured and sustained by generations of women. Songs of Our Native Daughters is that secret history writ large, manifest through songs that accommodate both the highlife rumble of “Music and Joy” but also the sawing fiddles of “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” the sinewy blues of “Black Myself,” the  prickly bluegrass of “I Knew I Could Fly.” It’s a history that’s been carried through suffering and physical trauma– through “blood and bones,” as one song puts it– and these women honor that history through narratives that never hold back or evade specificity. Many of the receipts of chattel slavery are aired here, including reckonings with the plundering of bodies, the theft of children, the crack of whips, the corruption of Christianity into slaveholder religion, and economic devastation that festers still. Giddens unpacks the economics most explicitly in her spoken word piece “Barbados,” where slavery is condemned as a moral affront but then accommodated as a capitalistic necessity. It’s a song that chases the intellectual seed of racism and injustice, but other songs are purely visceral; “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a tour of violence wrought upon black women, is set to hand claps and thumping percussion, each one landing with a bruise. “Slave Driver,” sinister and traumatized, charts slavery’s warped genealogy, naming illiteracy and poverty as its spiritual children. “Moon Meets the Sun” locates the moral authority that slaveholder religion abandoned: “May the god that you gave us/ forgive you your trespasses.”

These are songs of integrity, historic precision, and moral clarity; they’re not written to make anyone feel better. And yet those very qualities are what make the album’s redemptive work so astonishing and so believable. It would be grace enough to hear these women channel suffering into “music and joy,” or to hear how “Moon Meets the Sun” traces back a long lineage of perseverance and strength (“we’ll survive this” may be the record’s single most stirring example of plainspoken resilience). Kiah supplies the pluck in “Black Myself,” which posits defiant self-respect as its own form of ancient wisdom (“I don’t creep around/ I stand proud and free”). But it’s Russell who’s ablest to turn sorrow into gladness. She sings the album-closing “You’re Not Alone,” which cries out to be performed by Mavis Staples and which summons the witness of the ancestors as a deep reservoir of courage (“All the ones that came before you/ their strength is yours now”). And in “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she tells the story of a distant grandmother who was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Grenada. Russell acknowledges a loss that’s incalculable but finds within it a fountainhead of hope; it was through Quasheba’s tenacity and survival that an entire family line blossomed. “By the grace of your strength we have life,” Russell sings, her voice just one of the multitude of blessings that sprung from Quasheba’s resilience. Over and over, Songs of Our Native Daughters tells the stories of women’s bodies being wrested into instruments of commerce, transmuted into crops and into gold– but Russell reframes the narrative. In her telling, a woman’s life is the seed for generations to come, a family tree that stretches on. It’s a song Quasheba’s captors never could have intended.

(Incidentally, the folds of the Rhiannon Giddens Extended Universe include not just Songs of Our Native Daughters and Giddens’ bridge-building collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, but also a recent solo album from McCalla, titled The Capitalist Blues. In it, the Haitian-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist creates a jostling and anachronistic vision of her New Orleans home, one that hums with humor, empathy, and pan-cultural imagination. The title song, a vaudevillian shuffle set to old-timey banjo strumming, surveys the wreckage of late stage consumer capitalism; “Aleppo,” a distorted punk-blues, surveys the wreckage of falling bombs. By no means are the two songs unrelated. Listen to this album and then chase it with a repeat of Giddens’ “Barbados” if you really want to feel the capitalist blues.)

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
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Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
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Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
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One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.

After Midnight: Birds of Chicago give a little more

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“There’s time for it all/ But no time to lose,” sings JT Nero on Love in Wartime, the second Birds of Chicago album in a row to be concerned with ticking clocks and the fierce urgency of now. It might as well be the album’s mission statement: Always brazenly empathetic and alluringly big-hearted, the Birds of Chicago wield their warm humanism with pugilistic fervor here, championing engagement in a world increasingly prone to despondency and drift. In their grittiest and most visceral album yet, they declare a state of emergency: We’ve only got so much time on this earth to fight for peace, love, and understanding. There’s no excuse to check out just because times have gotten tough.

The Birds– Nero and his wife/co-conspirator/vocal powerhouse/multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell–  make music that bridges pop hooks, folk earnestness, rock and roll energy, and gospel’s big-tent inclusivity. Their big break was 2016’s Real Midnight, an album forged in the fires of new parenthood and all its attending anxiety. The record portended wolves at the door, reminding us that the lives we build together all come with an end date. Nero and Russell greeted apocalypse with party tunes, vowing love amidst frailty, real commitment in a world where nothing lasts and nobody keeps anything.

Two years later, they’re releasing new music into a different world, one where it might feel to many as though real midnight’s come at last. Here’s an album for the morning after: Love in Wartime is about picking up and carrying on; it’s a soundtrack to the struggle, for love and for peace, for vision and for sanity. Though it’s not a concept record, it’s structured very much as an interconnected suite, opening with a brief instrumental prelude and doubling back on recurring themes—wake-up calls, resurrection, sojourners making their way through a world that’s not their home—and all the while it quietly rages against complacency. “We sat there and tried to remember our dreams,” the duo sings, their positivity rattled but not shattered. “No such luck, no such luck/ So then what, so then what/ There are songs to find and oh yeah, a baby to feed.” When idealism fails you, there’s still work to be done—life to live, neighbors to love— and any time spent moping is a luxury and a waste. So they’ve cranked the party tunes even louder.

The album feels conjoined to its predecessor, but also distinct. Real Midnight was cut with producer Joe Henry and his gang of ringers, its focus on the band’s cascading gospel harmonies, their rich command of pop and folk music vernaculars, their gentleness and generosity. Love in Wartime, recorded with the full Birds touring company and produced by Nero and Luther Dickinson, finds those harmonies sounding a little more ragged, the performances a little more kinetic and band-oriented, yet the album exhibits the same intimacy and candor that made Real Midnight catch fire. It’s a companion piece from a group that’s been put through its paces, their congeniality all the more convincing for how weathered it now sounds. This is a record built for the road, and the tightness in these performances reveals all the miles and all the shows that helped birth it. Indeed, the Birds have never sounded nimbler than here, hotwiring their songs to locomotive beats and florid keyboard grooves, always making it a point to keep moving: “Love in Wartime” rises from an organ’s conversational hum to a big sing-along chorus; “Travelers” is galloping folk that breezes through tight couplets with graceful efficiency; “Lodestar” rises from a whisper to a roar, one of several tunes where Nero’s words ultimately give way to the band’s mighty swell; album closer “Derecho” shimmies and sashays to a Mardi Gras beat.

The muscle and the directness in these songs mirrors the record’s themes of love as daily action and responsibility, even amidst disillusionment. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s first two singles are both swift kicks to the ass for anyone indulging in despair. “Never Go Back” is a scant two minutes of scruffy guitar riffs and sunny keyboard groove, punkish enough to stop with just a verse and a chorus, loose enough to include plenty of spirited woos and spoken French asides. Nero sings lead, and demands all or nothing—full-bodied engagement with the world in all its tattered beauty, or else what’s the point? (“I want all of your senses,” he sings. “C’mon, give ‘em to me!”) “Roll Away” is even punchier, and nearly as terse—rumbling country-rock with a handclap rhythm and thick harmonies. “I remember afternoons just waiting around to die,” it goes—but Love in Wartime is an album where the defeated find second chances: “I am not who I was and this is not that time now, cousin.” On other songs, the kick in the ass isn’t as swift, but it lands just as heavy. Listen to how the guitars scrape and moan throughout “Try,” a pained intervention for someone who’s thrown in the towel. “Try a little harder/ Give a little more,” the Birds sing, as though everything depends on it.

Love in Wartime resists cynicism, but it does acknowledge it. “We shook our heads in disbelief,” one song goes “as if there’s no blood in our streets/ as if there’s none of that old poison/ Hot in our veins.” The antidote is vulnerability. “Lord let me die before my child/ Prayed every mother far and wide,” Russell sings on “Superlover,” her voice frayed and her defenses down. It’s a spindly hymn that connects the album back to Real Midnight’s parental jitters, grounding the record’s uncertainties in something concrete and embodied. But a mother’s nervous, all-consuming love is a superpower, not a liability: “That’s a super love/ I’m a super lover,” Russell declares, finding strength in tenderheartedness and candor. And on the title track, she and Nero echo Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow: “You and I are here right now/ do you ever wonder how/ Many stars died just so that could be?” To be awake and alive, here and together is no small miracle—even in treacherous times. More than once, Love in Wartime references derechos, lines of intense storms that leave carnage in their wake. Nero and Russell sing like they’ve been through some storms before, and have learned to be joyful as a matter of intention, not circumstance. “Namaste, my derecho,” one song goes, the Birds standing ready for whatever comes their way. Even as the clock strikes real midnight, there are songs to be found, work to be done.