Album Review: Ryan Culwell – ‘The Last American’

Ryan Culwell

Warning: Language

The short version: ‘The Last American’ is wild, unnerving and plain weird. It’s wildly incohesive, yet that ends up remaining an asset on one of the most fascinating projects of the year. 

The short version: It’s one thing to focus on an album era and an artist’s success. It’s another thing to keep up with the aftermath of it all.

Independent artists likely know that all too well today. Sure, Ryan Culwell’s 2015 album, Flatlands garnered critical acclaim, but there was a wild ride afterward listeners are really only hearing about now on his new album, The Last American. He welcomed two daughters into the world, yet he was also barely getting by working odd jobs to support his family. There was happiness, but it was bittersweet.

All of that was supposedly channeled on Culwell’s newest album, a huge departure from the stripped back production of his last work. The Last American is messy, and that’s exactly the point. It’s wild, it’s stylistically incohesive, and at times it’s plain scary and weird to listen to. Even the most off-kilter production choice or vocal delivery feels like it was intended that way, because ultimately, The Last American is a sign of the messy, uneasy world we’re living in.

No two songs here sound like one another. The opener, “Can You Hear Me” is Bruce Springsteen atmospheric rock mixed with a hint of the War On Drugs. “Dig A Hole” is sweaty, sinister, southern Gothic while “The Last American” slows things down as an atmospheric acoustic ballad. This is only the first three tracks, by the way.

Right from the beginning though, Culwell places the album’s main thesis in “Can You Hear Me.” This is an album where you have to listen closely for references made to real world scenarios, with Culwell stringing them together to make his ultimate point that today, we’re all shouting hoping to be noticed. We don’t think or care about others – we want instant gratification.

Of course, this album doesn’t find Culwell pointing his finger down from atop his perch. He includes himself in his criticisms, not to blame anyone, but to make us think of the future and what we’re leaving behind. One of the more direct examples of that is “Fucked Up Too.”

“Dig A Hole” is made purely for show, with Culwell shouting barely discernible lines to showcase the usual anger we see today – unrelenting shouting without any justification because everyone is a target.

Culwell also relates it back to his own perspective as well, with him acknowledging that he’s not trying to solve these problems for himself necessarily, but for his children and everyone else who will inherit our world someday. His day is ending, in other words.

“Dog’s Ass” and “Moon Hangs Down” are two of the more delicate acoustic ballads on the album, with the same sense of happiness and frustration underlying the backbone of this album. He continuously recounts the good things he has in his life before weaving back around to the line, “nothing good gonna come for me” on the former track, highlighting his frustration to build a better world for his family and also his frustration at his limitations of being just one person. The latter track is the lightest track here, bolstered by liquid banjo and mandolin, and also serves to highlight wanting a better tomorrow.

Those aforementioned frustrations ultimately are more prominent on this album despite a few moments of levity. The title track shows what happens when people continuously work hard and still lack the options to make a better life.

The most striking track though is “Heaven Everywhere I Go” placed in the middle. Sonically, it’s adventurous, with thick, smokey electric guitars and underlying bass creating a darker atmosphere. It’s indescribable in a sense, but it also highlights the album’s other main theme of the death of dreams. In a sense, it’s about the thirst of wanting to truly be alive without actually getting to do or enjoy it. It’s also marked by multiple breakdowns which include brief bits of a static radio broadcast Culwell heard one day.

The second half of the album is admittedly less exciting than its excellent first half, but the spirit of the project remains strong. Both “Nobody Loves You” and “I Have A Dream” remain weaker links though. The former features canned vocal production to create a distant feel, yet it’s off-putting, and unlike other tracks here, there’s never really any reason for it to have it anyway. The hook also catches you off guard at first (“nobody’s ever going to love you” he sings before adding “like I do”), but it gets repetitive quickly. It’s the one oddity of this album that seems to have no real place on the album.

“I Have A Dream” is sharp, fierce and chaotic in the same vein as “Dig A Hole,” but it too feels a bit more aimless and repetitive. Sure, that’s the point, and the concept of having a dream and having it crushed is what this album is all about, but by this point, it feels like it’s adding nothing that other tracks have already said.

For as depressing as this album gets though, the closer, “Tie My Pillow To A Tree” is truly its final crushing blow. It’s Culwell’s most passionate performance vocally on the record. It’s the true acknowledgment of his end and also a plea for shelter from the chaos engulfing the world right now.

I’m truly scared of this album, and I mean that in a good way. It never finds any consistent footing, and ultimately it may be the kind of album most will respect rather than revisit, but it’s also quietly brilliant in its execution. It’s angry, messy and aimless, but that’s to reflect the world we live in now. Sonically, the blend of genres feels exciting, and the particular sound each song embodies seems to fit the lyrical mood well. Culwell’s husky growl also works nicely for the grittier material here and give the songs a fiercer personality. The album is a bleak listen as well, but Culwell definitely succeeds in capturing the mood and message he’s trying to portray overall.

(Light 08/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Heaven Everywhere I Go,” “Can You Hear Me,” “The Last American,” “Tie My Pillow To A Tree,” “Dig A Hole”
  • Least favorite track: “Nobody Loves You”

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