Album Review: Gabe Lee – ‘Honky Tonk Hell’

Gabe Lee showed great potential with farmland, and on Honky Tonk Hell, that potential has blossomed into something fierce.

One underreported trend of 2019 was the rise of several new, promising acts who released debut albums that weren’t just good, but among some of the best music of that year.

2020, for obvious reasons, likely won’t result in another positive trend like that, given how the music industry is taking an unprecedented hit (especially the country music industry with the Nashville tornadoes, though just about every facet of life is suffering at this point). The year started off positively, at least, when Nashville singer/songwriter Gabe Lee announced he’d not only be releasing a quick turnaround from his debut album, farmland, with Honky Tonk Hell, but also incorporating a more fleshed-out production and recording style; a change from the low-key tendencies of farmland.

Again, farmland was among that crop of incredible debut albums in 2019, but the change certainly sounded refreshing, given how that album did tend to meander at points. At any rate, while no could have predicted it at the time, it’s a hell of a time to strike while the iron is hot – especially with an album called Honky Tonk Hell – but if there’s any positive development in these trying times, it’s that Honky Tonk Hell is absolutely an improvement for Lee in nearly every area.

Yet when the conversations arise around this album, those comparisons to farmland are going to be hard to ignore. And the reason, surprisingly (and arguably), doesn’t stem most from its shift in production and instrumentation, but from a lyrical standpoint. Whereas farmland introduced Lee as a misshapen character with a broken past and a storytelling wit to make those emotions hit hard, Honky Tonk Hell is largely about moving on from that. It’d be disingenuous to call it a progression, given that this album has been in the making for two years now, but there is a noticeable shift in tone that shows the many layers of that transition while still feeling cohesive.

In other words, Lee can now look at that past with a wry, self-deprecating humor on the title track, “Susannah” and “All Dogs Go To Heaven”; meanwhile, tracks like “Babylon” and “Blue Ridge Goodbye” are more grounded, showing that while the scars are undoubtedly still there, he’s learning how to move ahead and understand when the past is the past.

Now, that also comes with the slight criticism of the details not always feeling as sharp as they could be on some tracks, reliant more on heavier dramatic stakes to carry the sentiments, even if the writing can’t always back it up (though there are definitely some excellent one-liners). “Great Big River” sort of ends with the conclusion that he’s going to “hope and pray to be a better man” without really exploring the “how” of that statement or explore the possibilities beyond it. And while there’s a sharp edge to the title track that comes with the added nuance of wanting to move past those wilder days, that’s a perspective missing from “Susannah” and “All Dogs Go To Heaven”; both of which are fun listens, sure, but also tracks where Lee tries to throw in an added swagger that never really fluctuates, mostly due to a weird turnaround of the hook on the former track and a weird turn of phrase altogether on the latter track. It’s rebelliousness without actual consequence, in other words, and while that can make for a fun listen, I’d argue it’s not as good of a fit compared to other tracks exploring those deeper emotional complexities.

Because, yes, when those actual details do show up, they shade in some of the best tracks here. Lee is able to look at misunderstood characters on “30 Seconds at a Time” with real empathy because he’s been in a similar situation, and he, too, understands how much inspiration hope and fantasies of better days can provide, even if only in the mind. “Imogene” may carry chord progressions eerily similar to “Eveline” off farmland, but it’s a weighted example of Lee fleshing out his own story, detailing how temporary solace from problems is just that – temporary – and in any event, running from the past only either creates new problems or invites the old ones back into the fray. But then there’s “Emmylou,” a piano ballad that finds Lee initially acknowledging how the end of this relationship is good for both parties; a mature sentiment, but one that comes with a gutting progression where she moves on relatively quickly while Lee is caught in an endless regression and can’t follow his own advice. With that said, it is ultimately an album with a positive message, and even if he’s broken up about his significant other leaving him in “Heartbreaker’s Smile,” he also understands her need to find her own purpose in life, especially when he wholeheartedly understands and relates to the gypsy mentality she carries. And though “Blue Ridge Goodbye” is a relatively simple ending to it all, Lee’s promise to remember the past while not being defined by it is still effective.

And then there’s the other shift for Lee – the production and instrumentation. Well, alright, it’s not so much a shift as it is an addition, where the backing band adds plenty of needed layers to help these songs stand out in their own way. The variety is there, in other words, and it also means that Honky Tonk Hell is undoubtedly a more high-octane listen overall, with the little details speaking for themselves: the sharp, twangy telecaster and dobro driving the energy of the title track while the organ is there to carry it all; the rollicking groove of “Babylon” where the pedal steel cuts through with a shimmering quality and helps carry the optimistic tone of the song; or the pure adrenaline rush of the rockabilly-inspired “Susannah.” Of course, the subtler moments also carry their own added presence: “30 Seconds at a Time” is reminiscent of the best elements of farmland, where the acoustics have an added warmth and emphasis in the mix and help the message cut as intended; and the harmonica shines through at just the right moment on “Imogene.”

Beyond the eclectic sonic palette, too, it’s Lee who’s contributing a lot of added presence to this album. His flow can still get a bit choppy at points – particularly on “Piece Of Your Heart” and “Great Big River” – but he’s got a ton of earnest charisma and passion that’s punctuated on this album. His knack for underplaying his subtler moments is what helped make farmland a compelling listen, and those moments come again on “Emmylou,” “Imogene” and “30 Seconds at a Time.” Though when he’s able to flip the script and let loose on the title track to show that other side of him, he’s able to match that energy step for step. The vocal production can cause him to sound a bit too sharp in the mix at points, and I would say some of the performances like “Great Big River” and “Susannah” are a bit overdone, but beyond what Honky Tonk Hell offers on the surface, it’s all slyly supported by Lee himself.

Overall, though, if farmland gave listeners enough reasons to check out a budding talent, anyone who didn’t is out of excuses with Honky Tonk Hell. Far from a sophomore slump, for as much as it is a pivot for Lee, it’s also a natural transition to flesh out his sound and bring a set of genuinely great songs to bear.

(Light 8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Emmylou,” “30 Seconds at a Time,” “Honky Tonk Hell,” “Imogene,” “Babylon”
  • Least favorite track: “Great Big River”

Buy or stream the album.

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