The short version: For something different, I collaborated with Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country for a review of Ryan Bingham’s latest album!
Zack: So I think to start this, we should give our personal history with Ryan Bingham’s music up to this point.
Nathan: Sounds good. So I first noticed Bingham’s music, like most people, with his cut of “The Weary Kind” for Crazy Heart. It truly was a big musical discovery for me because there weren’t many artists like him out there at the time. Road-weary vocals, deep lyrics about the human condition. Songs that were relatable without falling into familiar themes and tropes. I consider songs like “Hallelujah” and “Ever Wonder Why” to be some of the best songs of the 2000s. And Mescalito and Fear and Saturday Night are, in my eyes, two of the greatest alt-country, Texas Country music albums of all-time. He is, along with Evan Felker, one of the best songwriters in music today.
Z: I remember you saying on Twitter at one point that he’s one of the closest things we have to Townes Van Zandt today, and I think between what you said, with the road-weary vocals and deep lyrics that it’s an appropriate comparison. For me, I was a late bloomer to the Bingham party. My first album I heard of his was Fear and Saturday Night, and this was right around the time I actually started getting into independent country music. I remember loving it from the moment I heard it, and around 2016 or so, I dug deeper into his catalog and discovered the same favorites you did. It’s crazy that it’s been four years since that album.
Nate: Fear and Saturday Night is a masterpiece in my mind. It was a big culmination of Bingham’s own tragic childhood which he still carries with him to this day as evident in his songs, some slight success in music, and some happier moments coming in his own life. It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve had to wait this long for music. Speaking only as a fan and after listening to the new record, I can certainly see how Bingham could have possibly struggled with which musical direction to pursue next.
Z: I think that culmination also comes into play on the lead single from this project, “Wolves” where Bingham addresses childhood bullying. But you’re right about the pressures of musical direction for him, and at 15 tracks, American Love Song certainly takes a lot of interesting turns. What were your initial thoughts on the record, and have they changed any over the past week this album has been out?
Nate: I thought “Wolves” was an interesting, albeit great choice for a lead single. I’ve always said it’s harder to write a *protest* song or one in which an artist takes a stand than many think. And we see that with a couple songs on the album. “Wolves,” “Beautiful and Kind,” and “American” are all subtle looks at the landscape of the nation at the moment. He’s not just railing against something; he’s hoping and wishing for a change in a positive direction. In terms of the whole album, my initial thoughts haven’t changed all that much. I remember saying something on Twitter along the lines of, “I don’t want to say this is a disappointing album; but it does feel a little underwhelming.” Songs like “Time For My Mind” and “Lover Girl” just don’t have the lyrical heft of what I’m used to from a Ryan Bingham song, and the production is a little all over the place. One of my biggest complaints with the album is the lack of a cohesive theme, which Bingham has explored on past albums in such an incredible way. But there are plenty of positives to still take away. In particular, the three song run of “Blue,” “Hot House,” and “Stones” is epic while the aforementioned “America” is a great protest song.
Z: I think you hit the nail on the head with your analysis. Personally, I’m not one of those people who thinks artists can’t make great 15-track albums, but it’s still incredibly tough. Like you said, there’s just a lack of focus to this album. The first three tracks are all pretty fun country-rock numbers. I’m a fan of the spacier, psyched-out feeling of “Nothin’ Holds Me Down” and the fiddle driving “Pontiac,” but those first three tracks also all mostly cover the same topics. It’s like the album takes its time to find that footing. As you said, “Lover Girl” is an extended love song that didn’t need to be, and while there are some good moments in between like “Beautiful & Kind,” and “Situation, Situation,” something like “Got Damn Blues” on the other hand is a protest song that’s unfocused and messy. It’s not helped that Bingham goes over the top with his delivery on that one. For me, the album really hits its stride starting at “Wolves,” which I read more as a deeply personal track rather than a protest song. But then you get “Blue,” where’s a thicker backbone to the production, “Hot House” which is just an incredible love triangle murder ballad, “Stones” which is just a beautiful song, and “America” which is also damn excellent in its execution. For me, it’s a good album, but like you, I wish it had been better or trimmed the fat in places.
Nate: I think you’re exactly right about the album really hitting its stride with “Wolves,” or even “What I Would’ve Become” right before. If it were those last seven tracks standing alone, I’d have no hesitation naming the album an early contender for one of the best of the year. All of Bingham’s best attributes are on display for the second half of the album. I did enjoy “Pontiac” as well, with its Stones-esque influence. But let’s talk about “Stones.” We both really enjoyed this track, and to me, “Stones” recalls some Whiskey Myers themes, and even the production is a little more Southern Rock oriented, with the light piano in the background
Z: “What I Would’ve Become” is definitely another good one I should have mentioned. It reminded me a lot of Eric Church’s “What I Almost Was,” so that’s obviously a compliment. But “Stones” is an interesting discussion point for sure. What I noticed about this project compared to previous Bingham projects is that the focus is more direct and spelled-out for the listener. As we said, that can lead to some unfocused moments, but “Stones” is one of those moments that feels like it could have multiple meanings depending on the listener’s perspective. I was thinking of an appropriate comparison when listening to that song, but Whiskey Myers definitely comes to mind. To me, it reads a lot like a prayer, and it fits well in line with “Beautiful and Kind” and “America” in its knack for subtlety.
Nate: I noticed the same thing about focus. As you mentioned, the album is a bit more on-the-nose for listeners. Almost like he’s trying to reach a different audience with some of his songs. I don’t know; maybe he is. But when we talk about songs like “Stones,” it’s hard to imagine it has nothing but Bingham’s true vision and the artist he’s been in the past. “Stones” finds Bingham exploring some of the biggest questions of morality and the human condition in a way few artists can. That’s what’s made Bingham one of my personal favorites and why there’s still enough material on the album to keep it from being even just average. The production really succeeds on “Stones” as well. The background vocals are beautiful, and Bingham’s desperation really hearkens back to “Depression” off Junky Star.
Z: For sure, I still think this is a very good album, and for the most part, it still feels like a Bingham album in terms of the foundation. He’s always been great at mixing heavier, maybe lightweight lyrical tracks onto his albums such as “Top Shelf Drug” off Fear and Saturday Night with the more serious, introspective moments, and thankfully we get those here. And you’re right about his ability as a performer. I remember someone on Twitter saying a while back that vocals don’t matter when examining performances, but to me, there’s more than just pure power. Does Bingham have the most “pleasant” voice in the world to listen to? No, but it’s that rough, hangdog weariness that’s lent his material, dare I say this word, authenticity and gravitas. Like, when you listen to “Stones,” you can’t say he isn’t pouring every ounce of himself into that song. And for the most part, I’d say he’s completely invested on every track on this album. The problem for me just comes down to the actual results of the execution, if that makes sense. But this is still a Bingham album at its core, for sure.
Nate: That does make sense, and if we were to boil down our main gripe with the album, I think we’d both come to that same conclusion. But as you said, Bingham’s vocals are key. I know I throw the “authenticity” word around a lot more than you typically do, but in this case, I definitely think it’s appropriate to add to the discussion- for the simple reason that Bingham’s life has been book-worthy. He lost both his parents in tragic ways. He was a bull-rider. He’s been a modern day troubadour. He worked on an Academy Award nominated movie but still couldn’t breakout and become a star. And yet he still retains that drive and vision for his music, even if it isn’t executed as nicely as we may want as fans and critics.
Z: The authenticity argument is something I’ve relaxed my stance on compared to what I thought about in the past. After researching country music, it’s impossible to say it doesn’t have an impact, and while I don’t think it’s an absolutely essential element to craft simple, good music, it can certainly go a long way toward elevating it. In Bingham’s case, yeah, you pretty much summed it up perfectly with regards to him. So that makes me wonder, when disregarding what we personally think, what do you think Bingham himself was ultimately trying to “say” with this project? For me, I think he took a broader approach to reach a larger audience, but not for fame or glory. Hell, nothing on this album sounds out of place from past projects thankfully, but in terms of some of the messages here, I think Bingham ultimately wanted to share a message of hope and change for the future. If nothing else, that’s a noble sentiment.
Nate: I’d have a hard-time disagreeing with what you said there about his message. I think it’s a message of hope and resiliency in a difficult time for both the musical community and the world at large. And I think that may be why we get such a wide variety of sounds on the album. It seems like he wanted to make an album for all and be inclusive about his message. Whether it be through a protest song like “Beautiful and Kind” or a prayer of resiliency like “Stones,” Bingham’s central messages are applicable in multiple ways. And if that message of inclusivity and hope is what he was going for, well, I can’t really say he failed.
Z: And to some degree, perhaps that messiness was intentional. He touches on a lot of topics, and it’s always related back to his personal perspective, but it’s alright to not always have “answers” necessarily. I don’t, and I’m not alone, but of course, wanting a better future for all is still certainly something we all hope for. In that sense, I can’t fault him for that. What were the highlights of this project for you? For me, my personal favorites were “Wolves,” “Blue,” “Stones,” “Hot House,” “Pontiac,” “Nothin’ Holds Me Down,” and “America,” and my least favorite was probably “Got Damn Blues.”
Nate: You know, I really don’t know how to feel about “Got Damn Blues.” It was just weird…and not necessarily in a good way. He tried to stretch himself with the track, and I don’t think it really came off. But in the same breath, I will say that I enjoyed the *sound* of the song. In terms of my least favorite tracks, I’d easily go “Time for My Mind” and “Lover Girl.” Not bad songs for other artists, but from Bingham I just expect more. That three song run I mentioned earlier is definitely a standout for me with “Blue” my personal favorite on the record. You can smell the whiskey and cigarettes while listening to “Hot House,” and “Stones” is beautiful as we’ve mentioned. I did like “What Would I’ve Become” quite a bit as well, with both its sound and themes taking us all the way back to Mescalito.
Z: Yeah, I think you captured it pretty well with that last sentence. It does feel like an album that hearkens back a little bit of everything. Do you have any final thoughts on the album to share? Since I do ratings for my website, I’m going personally with a light to decent 7/10.
Nate: I think we covered everything pretty well, but I think a final thought for me, especially when considering independent-minded artists like Ryan Bingham, is that we’re never always going to get what we expect from certain artists. And that lends itself to interesting and intriguing discussions and record-spins. Since we’re putting this on your website, I’ll unveil my inaugural rating…I’ll go a light 7/10.