The short version: ‘HOME’ finds Billy Strings expanding off his naturally frenetic energy to craft a cohesive album that’s unique, weird, exciting, and one of the best of the year.
- Favorite tracks: “Away From The Mire,” “Home,” “Highway Hypnosis,” “Long Forgotten Dream,” “Taking Water”
- Least favorite track: “Hollow Heart”
- Rating: 9/10
The long version: I’ve said this before, but bluegrass albums are hard to review.
In a nutshell, the issue usually comes down to this music genre translating better through a live show rather than a sedentary listening experience. There are, however, exceptions, and those usually shine through when acts go beyond the traditional bluegrass template.
Granted, a traditional versus progressive approach is a debate hardly new for any music genre (especially, say, country music), but bluegrass seems to be one of few exceptions where the fans are fine with artists exploring either route (or both, should that time come). Fans would even dare to welcome in Billy Strings, a young, bright-eyed student of the genre who likes metal and rock just as much as he likes bluegrass.
Of course, when approaching a debate of genre within bluegrass, there’s a greater respect for the roots of the craft, enough to where artists are able to branch out without offending purists because, it’s (fundamentally) still bluegrass music. For Strings, that idea of branching out comes through in his tendencies to blend elements of psychedelia or fierce electric guitar solos into one song before turning it back into a traditional bluegrass song within seconds. It’s that seamless blend of carefully crafted styles that made his 2017 album, Turmoil and Tinfoil, one of the most exciting albums to come out of bluegrass in a long time, and with Strings’s recent signing to Rounder Records, he now had the chance to pursue his interests further with his new album, HOME.
It’s dangerous to throw around the word “innovative”; it scans as either overpraising something or putting pressure on an artist to continue in a certain lane. Yet the usual mark of a great bluegrass album is one that can capture the indescribable magic of a live show and put it onto record. With HOME, Strings hasn’t done that – he’s done something more, pushing his brand of bluegrass into new sonic territory that, if done before, hasn’t been done this well.
In fact, for a change of pace, I’ll address the criticisms now. While I understand Strings’s preferred method is to make room for a variety of tracks spanning traditional and progressive approaches, I do wish that combination blended together better in some areas. Some of the more straightforward cuts toward the back of the record are fine, but just knowing what Strings is capable of makes these tracks feel more underwhelming than they actually are. Strings also isn’t good at selling love songs, as “Love Like Me” operates through clichés while “Hollow Heart” finds him questioning his lover’s need to go out and chase her dreams when she can just settle for him, because that’s flattering.
Otherwise, HOME is a breathtakingly epic adventure that shows Strings’s influences in more ways than one. Actually, the love for rock and metal almost makes too much sense, as HOME is reminiscent most of a black metal album, a sub-genre of metal that’s built around instrumental flourishes and strong grooves and melodies over lyrical content. That’s not to say HOME doesn’t succeed in that department, but it’s the kind of album one describes through metaphors or imagery rather than a technical analysis. Therefore, while art usually has no right or wrong answers, when it comes to interpretation, this is an album that allows for a higher creativity of how the listener feels and what they experience when listening to it, a fitting statement given the sonic adventure HOME allows for its listeners.
Still, it all starts with the interweaving of the banjo, fiddle and mandolin melodies, with a heavier usage of acoustic or electric guitar riffs to punctuate these tracks. It’s not just that every track has a kinetic energy to it, it’s that the chord progressions go in different areas than one would expect (or, in “Long Forgotten Dream,” provide a cool callback to the ones in “Away From The Mire”). Even the traditional tracks like “Must Be Seven” or “Love Like Me” have a rich vibrancy to their tones that mostly set them up as highlights in their own right, but its tracks like the title track or “Away From The Mire” that show Strings at his most creative. The thing to remember with this album is that, on top of everything else, it’s still a bluegrass album. It just happens to be a funny coincidence that the fiddle and banjo can keep equal time with the electric guitar solo on “Away From The Mire” to give it the bones of an arena rock anthem before ending as it began, reminding the listener that they’re still listening to a bluegrass album, just one that can stretch its imagination. And the title track delves into a darker type of classical music, where the violin and strings constantly battle each other to create an sense of uneasy tension, which is a fitting tone for the lyrical content, but more on that later.
Of course, those who don’t enjoy studio trickery, courtesy of Glenn Brown, may cry foul, but it’s really only used to enhance the feeling these songs aim for. The tale of the weary musician is an all-too-common one, but it’s usually told from a top-down perspective. On “Highway Hypnosis,” however, Strings allows the listener to experience what driving for eight hours straight from gig to gig feels like, with the song purposefully set up to give the listener tunnel vision through warped, psychedelic tones before abruptly shifting back to being a traditional bluegrass tune. Ironically, the only instrumental moment that doesn’t quite click is “Guitar Peace,” and that’s only because other tracks show what can happen when the solos drive the story being told.
Yet for as adventurous as this album is in its execution, there’s a darker lyrical subtext not receiving enough attention. HOME is by no means a sophomore slump, though this album does feel like Strings’s reaction to the whirlwind of events that’s happened to him in the past few years as he gets used to his star burning brighter. Granted, like with the instrumental tones and production, this is all mainly left to one’s individual perspective (more so than other art, that is), especially when Strings himself says he doesn’t even know what some tracks here mean, but there’s a certain sense of weariness to this record. Sometimes it’s more directly about him, like on “Running,” and sometimes it’s a combination of personal feelings and his reflections on the plight of others, such as the decaying small towns he observes while on the road in “Taking Water.”
In either case, Strings doesn’t really provide an answer to it all other than to keep moving forward, because that’s how we find those answers anyway. Of course, the album doesn’t really provide a consistent ending to that theme, and I won’t lie and say it doesn’t border on theatricality to get that point across; it’s just that when it’s this excellent, I find it hard to care all that much.
I’d say there’s an air of darker nihilism to this album, but that extends more toward Strings as a vocalist rather than any lingering subtext. He’s always reminded me of Austin Lucas, both in a direct sense, and in the sense that Strings has a frank tone to his delivery where he’s not intending to purposefully screw with the listener’s mind. After all, a track like “Highway Hypnosis,” cool as it is, also isn’t meant to be fun, but rather a bleak insight into the demands of the road where the subtext practically looks the listener straight on. The same comment extends toward the title track, which finds Strings in a position where he has to revisit the dark remnants of his past, if only to change or correct the wrongs he’s done or to burn it all down and just forget it. In that sense, the solo could be interpreted either way, as the song isn’t about to give the listener a straight answer. Conversely, the solo on “Away From The Mire” stems more from catharsis than anything else, a literal escape from the clutches of whatever is holding us back, and is the most potent track in the bunch.
Even though “Long Forgotten Dream” seems to sneakily recall some of the chord progressions of “Away From The Mire,” the connection seems to be a lyrical one, first and foremost, as Strings breaks free on the latter track only to have him grow complacent on the former track, causing him to challenge himself. But that doesn’t mean those regressions don’t happen, especially in the bleak, but subtle, “Enough To Leave,” yet the album does challenge us, the listeners, to make the changes we envision, especially when that change always starts with us, individually.
HOME is the kind of brilliant work that’s as much as fun to analyze as it is to simply listen to, a tour de force not just for Strings’s own career, but also for bluegrass in general. Still, while I don’t think Strings has topped himself quite yet, given how lengthy HOME can run, that’s more of a note toward his potential, because this is still an excellent listen. It’s a bleak, but enthralling, listen that challenges listeners in ways that few albums have this year, and while it may not be for everyone, those who “get” it are in for one of the best albums of the year, thus far.