The short version: ‘Almost Daylight’ sounds, for the most part, like Chris Knight never went away. Yet the actual songs don’t quite measure up to Knight’s traditional standards.
- Favorite tracks: “Trouble Up Ahead,” “Crooked Mile,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Everybody’s Lonely Now”
- Least favorite track: “Go On”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Alright, Jamey Johnson – now it’s your turn to release an album.
In all seriousness, it’s been seven years since we last heard from Chris Knight, a veteran singer/songwriter who started his music career at the ripe age of thirty-seven. And while he’s had songs cut by the likes of John Anderson, Lee Ann Womack and Montgomery Gentry (among others) and has his own string of critically acclaimed albums, most people just catching up with Knight during his seven year hiatus may only know him as the artist who writes songs about killing people; a funny joke, for sure, but one that misses the larger picture of how Knight writes for the downtrodden in rural America, with that focus even extending toward himself.
Despite that seven year gap between 2012’s Little Victories and his newest album, Almost Daylight, though, his latest project doesn’t come with any grand disclaimers. In essence, Almost Daylight is yet another Knight album, though for several reasons, I wouldn’t call this one of his best projects, even if it’s still good.
On one hand, one could argue Almost Daylight is the closest representation of Knight’s Kentucky roots yet, with plenty of banjo, fiddle and harmonica to support the melodies. And when the electric guitars come in, they have a furious snarl to them that adds weight to what Knight is trying to convey. After awhile, though, between a lack of real standouts in the melodic compositions and chord progressions, Almost Daylight does tend to run together, at points. It’s as if the focus this time around was on a heavier amount of atmosphere to drive home the tracks instead of a stronger lyrical sentiment (to be addressed later), and while that works in some cases, it makes other tracks feel too underwrought.
Still, there are exceptions to this: the snarl to the melody of “A Crooked Mile,” with one of the nastier electric guitar lines; the fantastic interweaving of the accordion and acoustic guitar running parallel to one another on “The Damn Truth” that only intensifies by that track’s end; and the natural tension built up through the fiddle and banjo on “Trouble Up Ahead,” a track that, admittedly, provides a balance to its story and atmosphere that I wish we had more of on this album, even if it does feature the kind of subject matter that some people think Knight only sings about.
On the other hand, on a pure vocal level, Knight’s version of his own “Send It On Down” doesn’t quite compare to Lee Ann Womack’s version (who joins him here), but it’s also a moment where the tones feel too bright and loose, particularly in the organ and piano lines, to effectively sell the heavier emotion of the track. The same might be said for “Mexican Home,” though aside from a fun collaboration with fellow songwriting veteran John Prine, it’s baffling why this cover of Prine’s song was included here, as it doesn’t fit in, sonically, leading to an odd closing moment.
On that note, however, part of why this album feels like it’s more reliant on mood and atmosphere extends toward Knight’s vocals. No, his gruffer tone has never been aesthetically pleasing to listen to, but that’s never really mattered. Still, it’s obvious when he tries to evoke a rougher emotion, like on “I’m William Callahan,” which leads to a delivery that certainly aims what it’s going for, but also feels a bit forced. But when he snarls on the chorus of “Crooked Mile,” or probably comes the closest he’s ever come to crooning on the Johnny Cash cover of “Flesh & Blood,” it seems to just be an issue of consistency, as he’s excellent in those moments. But considering John Prine managed to sound fairly stellar on last year’s The Tree Of Forgiveness, it’s confusing why both artists sound awful together on “Mexican Home.”
Lyrically, this album is what you’d expect from Knight – a look at downtrodden rural America where the only murder ballad in “Trouble Up Ahead” only ends in Knight promising to carry out the action, rather than actually doing it. Yet for as much as I hate to say it, there’s many moments on Almost Daylight that feel unfinished, or takes on themes that Knight has done better before. “I’m William Callahan” fleshes out a full picture of a seedy couple who are only good for each other and are shunned by pretty much everyone else, a story that seems to continue in “A Crooked Mile.” But in the case of the latter track, it feels like it’s missing a third verse to tie the story together. “I Won’t Look Back” and “Go On” share relatively straightforward sentiments (leave the past behind, basically), but in the case of the latter track, it’s the closest Knight has ever come to cliché and mawkish, not helped by his offbeat flow, either.
And perhaps the most disappointing track, lyrically, is “The Damn Truth,” a track that shows Knight voicing his displeasure with the way the world is right now, because we certainly haven’t heard that in 2019. Yet the track never manages to reach any coherent point of its own, and by the second verse, it’s just a long ramble, which is strange coming from a songwriter who’s good at finding commonalities between us over reasons to divide.
The album finds its best footing toward its end, where, on “Trouble Up Ahead,” Knight paints a masterful tale of desperation and despair of him coming back to his old stomping grounds to kill the father of an old girlfriend who sent him away for an unnamed crime, where Knight’s paranoia and uneasiness about the town is detailed well. “Everybody’s Lonely Now” shows a natural unraveling of a couple, picturing them as two people who don’t have any bad blood with one another, but have just naturally grown apart from each other over the years, which does happen. If there’s any thematic core to Almost Daylight, it’s moving ahead and leaving the past behind, which, sure, is fairly direct on certain tracks, but told best through a more complex track like this. And even if he didn’t write “Flesh & Blood,” he sings it like he did, even if Cash’s poetic cadence feels like foreign territory for a songwriter who usually aims straight for the heart of the matter.
And for as negative as this review might seem, it’s only because, fundamentally, Knight hasn’t lost his touch, not just after seven years, but more than 20 years after his debut album. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments that either feel underdeveloped or out of character for Knight on this album, and when it sometimes focuses more on mood and atmosphere over a gripping story, Almost Daylight is good, but it’s more inconsistent than we’ve come to expect with Knight.