Album Review: Dalton Domino – ‘Songs From The Exile’

The short version: ‘Songs From The Exile’ is great on its own, but it’s most fitting as a coda to ‘Corners.’

  • Favorite tracks: “Hush Puppy,” “Daddy’s Mud,” “Happy Alone,” “Welcome Home,” “Half Blood”
  • Least favorite track: “All I Need (w/ Kalsey Kulyk)”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: We’ve been here before with Dalton Domino, haven’t we?

In fact, over two years ago, Domino was prepping to release his second album, Corners, an album marked by battles with addiction. The title track to that album really spelled it out entirely, and that frank honesty about where he’d been and what he’d done set Domino apart from his peers, lyrically.

Of course, Domino slid from grace later that year by harassing a fan online. Suddenly that frank honesty was being used against Domino, and it felt like the person who made Corners and the person who issued those statements were two different people. As such, it wasn’t surprising that Domino spent much of 2018 laying low. Then in January of this year, he checked back into treatment following a suicide attempt, revealing someone who, yes, was flawed, but also took action before it was too late. It’s not my job to defend Domino, and the background surrounding his newest album is tough to recap within a few paragraphs, but this should ring true no matter what – no one wants to lose a great songwriter, especially not to themselves.

And out of the wreckage comes his new album, Songs From The Exile, an album written entirely before, not after, the treatment. Moreover, the album was recorded in Mobile, Alabama, unlike previous albums recorded in Texas, showing Domino took some needed time for reflection. If anything, the album certainly proved to be an interesting case study given that shades of Domino’s older persona would likely be prevalent in the work. And following Corners, an adventure in progressive country production and still-cutting lyricism, Songs From The Exile was yet another trip of redemption for Domino, but one that came with a heavier price this time around.

Songs From The Exile certainly opens a plethora of conversations to be had as to where it stands as a Domino album. I won’t lie and say I don’t miss the off-kilter production choices of Corners or that the high points on this album reach those on that album. But Songs From The Exile does showcase the power of a pure song better than previous Domino works, and with its ragged edges and themes of moving on in a way that feel more serious than before, Songs From The Exile feels like the coda that Corners needed.

Domino stated he wanted the songs on this album to sound more raw this time around, and they do for the most part. Domino has a certain gravelly texture to his voice reminiscent of, say, Wade Bowen, if lacking the same technical warmth. But Songs From The Exile is an exercise in Domino flexing his skills as an emotive interpreter, essentially reading a diary of his mind that’s uncomfortable to sit through at too many points.

The instrumental palette varies depending on the song, though the darker, minor acoustic strums and harmonica driving “Happy Alone” give the album one of its finest, yet coldest moments. And while the choice to strip most of these tracks back is understandable, the best moments here do have a driving momentum in their sonic palette. The wistful keys and rollicking percussion help to add a small ease and comfort to an otherwise heavy track and signal fond remembrance, and “Daddy’s Mud” has a certain bite to it in the electric guitar line that help add the anthemic swell it’s going for. And if there’s any moment that comes close to sounding like something off Corners, it’s “Welcome Home,” where the warped, atmospheric textures and the thicker drum line really only serves to help everything come full circle by the album’s end.

But truthfully, not every moment works well in this regard. The stiff, muffled percussion on the first verse of “Dead Roses” is an odd, unfitting choice, and the slow-rolling, lazier groove driving “Love Is Dangerous” just seems to undercut its darker lyrical sentiment.

But to echo pretty much everyone else who’s already heard this album, the focus of Songs From The Exile stems from the lyrics and themes. While the root of the album’s conflicts stem from broken relationships (where Domino admits to often causing the trouble), most of the songs here are about moving on in general, but not without taking time for reflection and questioning your implications in those situations – an important distinction from numerous other albums exploring this sentiment.

At some points, it’s almost like time is stopped to go back and watch the stories unfold and get a better understanding of why things went down the way they did, and Domino is never quick to paint himself as the hero in any situation. Not that he isn’t petty and bitter on tracks like “The Nerve” or “Happy Alone,” but even those tracks come with their own gray areas suggesting neither party is exactly in the right; the former touching upon an honest reaction to when love goes sour and the latter track showing genuine concern for a woman who not only abandoned Domino, but also her friends and the town she once called home, subsequently leaving her and him alone in their own ways.

While the album does take time to really get going as far as more diverse perspectives are concerned, it slowly moves toward finding that personal redemption with each step. The album begins with a track where the significant other leaves for bigger and better things only for another character to return home beaten and battered on the closing track, truthfully all the wiser for it – the subtext is certainly there.

Again, to judge the moral fiber of Domino in general at points would be underscoring how well-framed these tracks really are, as while “Better Now” points to him as the reason why this relationship crumbled, the only reason he can’t move on is because he feels responsibility and wants to make sure his ex-lover is doing better now. Sure, it could be more than a tad creepy with the wrong framing, but Domino being stuck haunted by his psyche is really the entire point of the album. He can’t move on without making sure the past really is the past and that he’s atoned for what he’s done, a concept that Corners didn’t really explore. And yet even when he’s faced with cynicism on “Love Is Dangerous,” part of the fight “back home” is knowing that, while we can’t give up, we also have to make sure we can move on with a clear conscience.

And when the album gets to its best track, “Hush Puppy,” the focus shifts entirely to the literal day-to-day aftermath of a father’s death and how the family deals with the loss. One family member relies on making humorous jokes about him while the other is too visibly shaken to notice. Even when the funeral is over, the family members who flew in go their separate ways afterward, never leaving that time for healing or remembrance that’s so essential to other tracks here. And even when the album touches again on familial ties on “Half Blood,” the focus there is how divorce shapes the lives of two half-blood siblings who find solace with each other despite the war zone of home.

What that goes to show is that, by the second half of the album, this isn’t just Domino’s story, but rather showing bits of fragments of characters down at their worst who we can all relate to, if not now then at some point. We can make those snap judgments about someone and assume we have the full picture, but more often than not there’s more beneath the surface, which, while not excusing any behavior going against that, still paints a picture of grounded humanity and empathy for these characters. For Domino, his father had his fair share of problems echoed in “Hush Puppy” and “Half Blood,” but he’s proud of even the worst traits he inherits from him anyway on “Daddy’s Mud,” if only because they’re always going to be a part of him whether he likes it or not. Songs For The Exile is an album that dwells in its darker moments, but the focus is always on trying to understand either Domino’s personal psyche or that of his characters, consequently asking the listener to examine themselves as well.

Going deeper with certain criticisms of the album, though, certain tracks like “The Nerve” and “Dead Roses” could have benefited from having a bit more bite in the mix as far as their guitar lines go, as the production on this album can sound a little too rounded and smooth at points. And if there’s any other weak tracks in general, Kalsey Kulyk turns in a fine performance on “All I Need,” but the track itself leans heavily on schmaltz as far as love songs go. On an album exploring darker emotions, it feels too lightweight to sound effective here, especially in the larger context of it all. “Shadowlands” leans on this as well, though at least this track does acknowledge those darker demons. If anything, it could have benefited from being pushed later on down the track list to help something like “Welcome Home” really round the album out.

But the biggest overall lesson with Songs From The Exile is that Domino will inevitably screw up again, and so will I and you. The message centers around forgiveness and redemption, but not without paying a heavy price first. Domino’s public persona hasn’t worked well for him for, well … quite some time now, and it’s understandable why some will outright dismiss him because of that. It’s also fitting considering Songs From The Exile could be just another false promise to some. But while I wouldn’t say this album reaches the heights of Corners, it’s an album that feels more grounded and geared toward Domino’s true redemptive arc, ripping away the veneer and showmanship to reveal someone who stumbles, gets back up, atones for his mistakes and finally moves on, even if it means stumbling again. And when the album is backed up by a performer who remains one of the most exciting young songwriters working today, Domino at least deserves a chance to prove he can try again, because Songs From The Exile proves he’s a wiser, more mature performer and human in general.

(Light 8/10)

Buy or stream the album.

(Editor’s note: While I don’t normally prefer to insert music videos for reviews, of the tracks from the available, this is too strong not to include).

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