Author’s note: This review originally listed Dustin Schaefer as a member of Shane Smith and the Saints at the time this album was recorded. This is a mistake, as guitarist Tim Allen was still with the band when this album was recorded. The revised review reflects those changes, and The Musical Divide apologizes for the error.
The short version: ‘Hail Mary’ by Shane Smith and the Saints is a grand odyssey.
- Favorite tracks: “Little Bird,” “Parliament Smoke,” “Heaven Knows,” “Whirlwind,” “Oklahoma City”
- Least favorite track: “Last Train To Heaven”
- Rating: 9/10
The long version: In these trying times, it’s understandable to want to collect your bearings.
As someone who’s dabbled in writing for the better part of four years now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of groundswell support that I have for Shane Smith and the Saints. When those “best of” lists came out in 2015, the biggest question was “where’s ‘Geronimo?’,” yet no one really had a good answer.
Granted, that kind of exclusivity where only hardcore fans know about a certain artist or band can happen with acts associated with the Texas/Red Dirt scene, but like with any intriguing artist or band, you keep your eye on them for future endeavors.
Yet after Geronimo, the band wasn’t quick to release another project anytime soon. Sure, they continued to draw attention from their bread-and-butter live shows, but what went on behind the scenes was another story. As such, it’s no surprise to hear that Hail Mary, their first album in four years, is a culmination of those experiences along the way, including relationship issues and near-death experiences with rattlesnake bites and motorcycle accidents (you know, among other things). Released in a series of chapters including two-to-three songs leading up to the album’s official release, Hail Mary reached its conclusion by June 28.
Despite the hardships, however, Hail Mary carries a sense of irony to it, because if there’s anytime to jump on board with Shane Smith and the Saints, it’s now. Hail Mary is a grand odyssey that, while only really loosely following the story of the band’s trials and tribulations (or any coherent, cohesive story at all), more than makes up for it with a grand, sweeping, theatrical presentation and some of the best playing and harmonies you’ll hear this year.
And on that note, there’s almost an immediate red flag with this album. For one, the production was handled by Mark Needham, a producer most notable for working with Imagine Dragons, not exactly the most glowing comparison for Smith and the Saints. But any worries one might have with that can immediately be tossed out the window. Granted, I’ve never seen this band live before, but one criticism I’ve heard from fans is that the band has never quite been able to capture the magic of their live show on record, which is completely understandable.
Yet with Hail Mary, whether you’ve seen this band live or not, it feels like they’ve perfected that formula. For a band that draws equally on Celtic and Gothic traditions in their harmonies, melodies and arrangements, Hail Mary takes the best of those elements while blending it with a sweeping presentation behind it all. The electric guitars have real punch and snarl to them, the drums boom and set an ominous scene at times, and considering Bennett Brown is able to easily weave between the delicate intricacies of playing the fiddle as it is and as a violin when the time calls for it, there’s rarely a moment here that doesn’t feel huge.
Of course, part of the huge feel in the production on this project also comes courtesy of some great added reverb that never feels too overwhelming. The opener, “Heaven Knows,” is filled with many excellent moments because of it, particularly that ending duel between the electric guitar and fiddle. And one could go on calling out the little details here – the fluttering fiddle melody of “Whirlwind,” the quiet, understated delicacy of tracks like “Oklahoma City,” “We Were Something” or the album highlight “Little Bird,” the heavy snarl of the title track, the fantastic galloping drums courtesy of Zach Stover on “Parliament Smoke” – again, there’s rarely a moment here that isn’t exciting.
Yet I’d be remiss not to mention how much the band contribute to the project, vocally. As for front man Shane Smith, he’s got the kind of bellowing, deep voice that can cut with just the right amount of emotional presence or, on the other hand, give you an uneasy feeling (a compliment, for the record). And again, the touch of reverb to sometimes emphasize that can really add some extra weight to that presence. He doesn’t just plead for a lover to stay on “Oklahoma City,” he actively gives the listener the feeling that he can’t go on should she leave. On the other hand, “Parliament Smoke” feels like a huge anthemic moment where the added snarl and presence leads to one of several highlights here.
Of course, the added reverb does get a tad too heavy at points, mostly notably on the title track which is a bit messy as a whole, but it’s amazing just how well Smith can handle some of the simpler tracks here like “Little Bird” or its coda, “We Were Something.” On the surface, they’re tracks that see a love unraveling, but Smith sells them with a wistful, sentimental attitude, and again, when you have huge production and fantastically layered, rich instrumental harmonies, it’s hard not to feel something more from them. And I’d again be remiss not to mention how the band’s harmonies continue to be excellent courtesy of other members Chase Satterwhite, Brown and Tim Allen, adding an extra layer or richness while also adding to the foreboding elements of the project. Of course, they also add a delicacy to “Last Train To Heaven,” which, while not a favorite track here, is still built nicely around those harmonies.
In other words, this is an album that leans heavily into its theatricality and huge presentation and works instead of ever feeling overbearing, and that extends toward its lyricism. If you go on expecting the full story of what the band’s gone through over these past four years, I’m not sure you’ll get that, nor does it really stick well to its whole “chapters” sequencing. With that said, however, this is still an album where the lyricism paints pictures and is more heavily reliant on higher stakes with a more poetic presentation. Basically, the band goes all in with the emotional nuance on this project. Sure, it does lead to tracks that feel more opaque than relatable, but it always invites the listener on the ride and to draw their own interpretations.
If there’s any underlying thematic arc to this project, it does speak to the journey of the band, albeit in a metaphorical manner, asking whether it’s worth it to continue to journey into the “abyss.” “Heaven Knows” is essentially the band’s proclamation that they don’t know where their future is headed, but they’re going to embark on the journey nonetheless. But there’s an important moment that comes courtesy of “The Hardest Part” where, despite the band embracing their inner adventurous sides and enjoying the camaraderie, it comes at the cost of a good home life. To be honest, the album ends on a cheesier note than I’d otherwise prefer with “The End” where the answer to that question is to essentially invite their families on the journey as well considering they’re already a part of it, but it’s one instance where a grounded presentation would have worked better than the otherwise theatrical side of it.
Again, though, that’s all in the subtext of this record. Hail Mary isn’t necessarily an album where one needs to listen to every track in order to get the full picture, though it’s an exciting journey to listen to as intended nonetheless. The foundation for Hail Mary is solid, but it’s the execution where it excels the most.
Still, after around five or six absolutely amazing tracks, Hail Mary starts to lose a little steam toward its end. “We Were Something” is a fine coda to “Little Bird,” though the more maudlin presentation does give it a shaky foundation for standing as its own song. And “Last Train To Heaven” is the one instance aside from the closer where I wish we’d gotten more background with the actual story instead of just a huge production behind it all. After all, this a story that alludes to a woman waiting around for death to claim her – I’ve got questions as a listener that go unanswered!
Despite this, however, Hail Mary is one of those albums that could fail in lesser hands. What should merely be a transitional album for the band as they look toward the future is instead their grandest project to date. Yes, that means it’s quite different from previous projects, but it also feels like the band’s fullest project and the one destined to expose them to the wider audience they deserve to meet. The natural talent the band brings to the table as vocalists and instrumentalists can’t be overstated, and when it’s all backed with richly layered harmonies and production that finally suits the band, it’s not to see Hail Mary as one the most epic albums of the entire year, and I’m certainly to hop onboard for the future journey.