Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

allthethings

At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Another Mutilated World: A swan song from Joan Baez

On Whistle Down the Wind, intended as the curtain call of a legendary recording career, Joan Baez says goodbye—all the while acknowledging that it’s never quite that easy. Think of the poet Adam Zagajewski, who exhorts us to “praise the mutilated world.” And think of Mary Oliver, who writes: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” The songs on Whistle Down the Wind are love songs to a mutilated world and a beleaguered humanity, their weariness and valor resonating as much today as they would have at any given point in Baez’ recording life. But love songs they remain: In her trembling read of Anhoni’s “Another World,” a throbbing and delicate album highlight, Baez sounds like she’s stepping onto a train and already regretting her departure; she can’t articulate her search for a better world and a higher plane without rhapsodizing about this one. “I’m gonna miss the birds/ Singing all their songs/ I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long,” she sighs, holding fast to the mortal world in all its ephemerality and imperfection, still the surest thing she’s ever known. Or, as Baez sings on the Tom Waits- and Kathleen Brennan-penned title song: “I can’t stay here and I’m scared to leave.”

Baez has spent her whole life hymning the mutilated world, and mutilated it will remain even once she sings her last. Maybe that’s what she means by titling the album after a gesture of transience; maybe it’s an acknowledgement that, after decades spent singing against war and desolation, she’s ending her recording career with a song called “I Wish the Wars Were Over,” because of course they’re not. But the record’s deep melancholy waters her hard-won hopefulness, weathered and in full bloom: Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Great Correction,” the closest this album gets to a jaunt, imagines the day when the walls of Jericho crumble, a camel passes through the eye of a needle, and the darkest hour gives way at last to dawn. Nobody said any of this would be easy, and so a Josh Ritter composition exhorts us to “Be of Good Heart.” That same song voices a humility born of experience: “I never claimed to know it all,” she sings, summarizing decades spent bearing witness. “All I know is what I’ve known.” And there is resilience, too. Waits’ “Last Leaf”—originally done as a barroom lament with soul survivor Keith Richards—is notably more forceful here. Baez imagines herself a leaf that’s weathered every winter since Eisenhower; she’ll make room for the new shoots of green, but she won’t let go—not yet.

The risk with an album like this—intended as a last will and testament, reckoning with a world that’s in roughly the same shambles she found it in—is austerity. It was produced by Joe Henry, who is singularly gifted at working with septa- and octogenarian artists to generate works that expand their legacies, rather than Cliff Note them. He and Baez address the concern of an insular and self-serious album by steering straight into it, laying all their cards on the table: There aren’t many jokes here and no song that qualifies as a lark; just song after song that burrows deep into earnestness and empathy. It earns our trust through its candor and its sincerity; its cumulative effect is total disarmament.

Whistle Down the Wind stands among the most genteel Joe Henry productions; his inclination toward first-take immediacy, which summoned elegant swing on his Allen Toussaint sessions and hard-boiled grit on his work with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, manifests here as gentleness. Drummer Jay Bellerose, whose rolling thunder is a hallmark of Henry’s production work, mostly offers gentle thumps and cymbal accents. Baez, John Smith, and Greg Leisz join acoustic guitars into a blur of finger-picked melody, while Patrick Warren’s piano and pump organ surface with crystalline romance. “Whistle Down the Wind” sounds at once earthy and windswept, born of this world but no longer tethered to it. “Another World” is skeletal and pulsing, Baez standing ragged and unsure at the song’s center.

She trusts the warmth and sadness of these songs to shine through, and they do. Baez sings with too much affection for any of these songs to lapse into cynicism, and too much weariness for any of them to sound like celebration. And so she is caught between this mutilated world and another, better one she can’t quite imagine; she’ll cling to this until she can’t, and then she’ll let go. In the meantime, Baez leaves us with a Zoe Mulford song called “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” set in the wake of the Charleston church shooting: “But no words could say what must be said/ For all the living and the dead/ So on that day and in that place/ The President sang Amazing Grace.” To sing in the face of sorrow is an amazing grace, indeed; a tender mercy that only a broken world can allow.