The short version: Overall, this concept album about a solider returning home to darkness and despair makes for an early contender for one of the best albums of the year.
The long version: For anyone who saw my review of the newest album from the Urban Pioneers, you might recall me saying I was glad to have something lighthearted and fun instead of something darker and heavier. Well, guess what we’re going to discuss today?
Granted, I didn’t know a heck of a lot about Ronnie Eaton walking into his latest album or even this review. A listen through 2013’s The Moth Complex revealed a sharp set of songs, but also a collection that could have afforded to have a tighter focus all around. All I can tell you otherwise is that he’s a well respected musician in the “Texas” scene (trying to be vague rather than disrespectful). Of course, that really means nothing to me anymore considering that every artist that stems from that scene is supposed to be “amazing”. Kidding aside, after hearing his latest album, I think any praise that comes Ronnie’s way is richly earned.
January can usually surprise me with some great projects early on in the year, but I wasn’t expecting something like this. Ronnie takes the same mature, nuanced approach to his writing that you’d expect from Jason Eady and combines it with the rich, warm, and inviting melodies that you would expect from John Moreland. Overall, at nine tracks it may feel a bit lacking, but listen after listen with this album convinces me that the story told is told without hesitation or filler material. This can definitely be considered an early contender for one of the best albums of the year. While I don’t like to enter into the actual review going on a track by track basis, with this album it’s almost impossible not to.
Of course, to really understand that, one must understand the entire concept behind this album. It’s centered around a nameless solider returning to his home after a war only to find that his ghosts of the past have found him once again. The lonely piano accompanied by the violin definitely gives off the lonelier mood, and at first it’s more melancholy than anything else. After all, the only reason he entered into the war in the first place is because he thought it was something he needed to do, and now that he’s back in his own town, the memories are too much for him to handle. Hell, he resorts to going to the bar more frequently and wishing he was just back fighting since he’s unfortunately used to it by now. Home isn’t home for him anymore because there’s too many things that remind him of back then, including just looking up at the desert sky. There’s a lot going on in the opening track, and like any opener it’s really just setting the stage for more to come.
What I love about this album is how often Ronnie will reference common motifs on songs used in other songs on here. Losing his faith in God as he (mentally) slips into the abyss is one theme first established in “Sleeping In Hell”, but there’s also mention of a past flame that still runs through his mind as well. Now, one big criticism I have for this album is the song, “We Sang Hallelujah”. Yes, it does reveal another side of the plot beginning to unfold, but it’s definitely the weakest track here. Here, the narrator longs for human comfort and thinks about an old flame who he somehow wronged in the past. The song itself is a little sleep until we get to that final smoldering guitar chord, but the chorus is a little too cliché with its talk of how the pair used to be this energetic younger couple who “ruled the world” so to say. Again, not one of the better cuts here seeing as the song could have been a little more descriptive, but it does set up another important plot line. You see, the actual war he fought in still plagues this narrator’s mind, but there’s another “war” going on back home regarding this woman he wronged. She still haunts him.
I will say that I do like how that track bleeds into the next one with “Down Wind”, because with its bouncier melody and darker tones, it’s really just this depressing revelation that the narrator is left to fight his demons on his own. Sure, he once had brothers in arms watching his back, but now that he’s back in the one place that should bring some comfort and stability, he doesn’t get that. Again, the subtext hidden beneath some of these tracks is duly noted, and like any good concept album, it makes you want to connect the pieces of the puzzle to try and figure out everything going on.
“Ache & Longing” is perfect for the middle of the album. It’s just that one moment that really outright tells the listener how everything around him including simple objects such as the trees around his home and the sky turn into objects in his mind that remind him of both of the wars he’s fighting. Really, it’s almost as if he’s losing his mind. My only concern here is that things are being played a little too low key here. The more elegant production here with its simple acoustic melody and organ in the background gives off more of a comforting feel, but it also doesn’t really fit what the song is going for, at least to me.
“Silver Palace” is the moment of levity the album sort of needs at this point. Sure, those memories still linger, but at least he’s managed to find some comfort in Dallas and try to make something work. Of course, it’s short lived seeing as how the album highlight “Devil In My Suitcase” brings him back down. He’s been doing so well, but it was only a matter of time before everything got to him again. He can’t be happy since he’s paranoid about his ghosts catching up with him, and he knows that darkness will follow him wherever he goes.
I really enjoyed the more spacious, atmospheric, and lighter touches on “Stars In Your Eyes”. Again, for him, no matter where he goes, home will never be home because he still has those visions. Sure, he says “the stars in your eyes don’t burn too bright”, but he’s not talking to anyone. He’s talking to himself. The burning electric guitar gives off that sense of unease along with the piano. That essentially brings us to the conclusion with “South Hampton Rain”. This one seems to be focused specifically on that old flame. Hell, he gives up on trying to make it anywhere in the South because he knows it won’t work. Then again, he looks up at the clouds only to see her face there. At this point though, he needs to do something even though he knows those demons will never actually leave. They’ve been following him around everywhere. Still, to even try and find a sense of comfort, he’ll at least try. It’s a somber ending that only seems to signal a repeating of the cycle, but it’s not like the album ever pointed to a happy ending anyway.
Could the album have focused a little more on establishing the background information? Sure, it would have been nice to have a song describing the tortures he faced in the actual war as well as another song detailing what wrong with his lover, but really, this album is specifically focused on the aftermath of it all. I won’t say that Ronnie Eaton is the strongest vocalist in the world, but his gruffer texture does add somewhat of a ragged edge to this album that helps to give off the “tired” feel of it all. He’s tired of running, but he’s damned to keep doing it. The album itself is drenched in darkness and melancholy, and ultimately he helps to add that emotional nuance to the songs. It does mean that a track like “Silver Palace” can come across a little understated (after all, at this point he thinks he’s shaken everything off), and there could have maybe been a little more sonic variety added to the album, but thankfully Ronnie plays to his strengths way more than he doesn’t.
Again too, a lot of these melodies are downright gorgeous like on “South Hampton Rain” or “Down Wind”. On an instrumental and production level, everything is made to fit the moods they’re going for. From the opening of “Another War” to the minor chords on “Down Wind” to even that upbeat fiddle on “Silver Palace” to really make it feel “fun”, this album gets it right on so many levels.
I keep coming back to the meaning of the album title too, because it’s too much of a mouthful to not mean something, and yet I can’t for the life of me think of what it actually represents. All I can think of is the “hand” representing fate and destiny. After all, he thinks he needs to fight in this war, and obviously he thinks his future with this woman should have lasted a longer than it did. The “heart” in that case represents his emotions, because he gives in to them only to end up having it come back to haunt him.
So if you couldn’t tell already, Ronnie Eaton’s The Hand That Mocked Them & The Heart That Fed is a brilliant album and a tour de force in songwriting and composition. Yes, I do have my fair share of nitpicks with it all the same which I already mentioned, but even though I wasn’t expecting a heck of a lot when I walked into this, I was blown away by the end. Folks, I know those comparisons to Eady and Moreland from earlier are a high bar, but in my opinion, they’re earned here. Check this out.
- Favorite tracks: “Devil In My Suitcase”, “South Hampton Rain”, “Sleeping In Hell”, “Down Wind”, “Another War”
- Least favorite track: “We Sang Hallelujah”