Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019).
Thus far, my reasoning for structuring this feature the way I did – long-form pieces over a simple list in, say, January – has stemmed from a few various decisions: I didn’t start this blog until the late 2010s and, as such, never got to formally review most of the music I loved from the past decade; I’ve only fully understood my tastes and how to properly contextualize my musical observations over the past year or so (and even for a hobby, it’s a work in progress); and, in a few very rare cases, I wanted to redo certain reviews that I don’t consider among my best work.
Which, with the exception of Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca and Allison Moorer’s Blood – both of which I’m counting for this feature but have already received formal reviews – leaves me with Caleb Caudle’s 2018 album, Crushed Coins. For context, Caudle is a North Carolina native who found his way to the country/Americana scene after starting in various punk bands – a surprisingly common backstory for country-adjacent performers today, truthfully.
And while he’s been releasing albums for a couple decades, to me, he really found his footing when he teamed up with producer Jon Ashley, starting with 2014’s Paint Another Layer On My Heart. The presentation was cleaner, sure, but polished in a way that bolstered Caudle’s melodic presentation. His work would take on atmospheric new heights with 2016’s Carolina Ghost, with Crushed Coins being the latest installment of that collaboration.
It’s also an album I’ve written about before, though the archives for most of my work from 2018 are now gone. In a way, it gives me a chance to start over, especially when I wasn’t as enthusiastic about this year’s follow-up in Better Hurry Up.
And perhaps what’s most striking about Crushed Coins is that it’s a wonderfully cohesive album with a subtle approach. It’s an unofficial concept album following a man’s mental state in the aftermath of the death of a loved one, where even though certain tracks bleed into one another, there’s no set order to the actual story. It’s more about capturing the present and the past in spurts, whereas once this couple’s love once blossomed, the widower is now alone, trying to let go of his pain but wishing for death, instead. And that’s just what one will hear on the first track.
Granted, Caudle’s broad writing perspective is two-pronged: he’s effective in capturing the present disarray of his mental state – at least of his characters – but one of my few criticisms does extend to shading in the love songs that act as the moments of levity for this project. The album tells a story, but one that’s a bit more relatable and not framed by any specific scenarios; it’s a common, unfortunate part of life that doesn’t receive enough attention in song. Still, I’d signal “Empty Arms” and “Love That’s Wild” as the two weakest cuts here, both of which are fine, but get overshadowed by two similarly better tracks later on: “Way You Oughta Be Seen” and “Madelyn,” the latter of which bleeds into “Six Feet From The Flowers,” one of the most gutting transitions I think I’ve ever heard on record.
And what I’ve always enjoyed about Ashley’s approach to Caudle’s work is the slight touches of atmosphere, either accented in the warmer acoustics, touches of reverb or pedal steel accents in the low end. It works to convey the general mood of this project, which isn’t so much sad as it is … empty. This character’s largely moved past the grieving process and has to get on with his life, but as an assumed older character with his best days behind him, he’s struggling to find the motivation. If anything, a release through death would be the one entity he’d cherish most, if only to be with his lover again. It’s either incredibly morbid or a progressive take on love – depending on your approach, that is.
Again, too, what I miss about this type of production work was that it always highlighted the melody at the forefront of the presentation, where Caudle’s gruffer tone shouldn’t work, but surprisingly does to great effect. Again, subtlety is key, where so many little moments stand to elevate this project: the glistening piano off the melody of “NYC In The Rain”; the warped interplay of the echoing drums, pedal steel and acoustics leading into “Lost Without You” to set the general mood; the warmth to the midtempo rollick of “Headlights”; the weary, tempered reflection of “Way You Oughta Be Seen” that transitions excellently into “Stack Of Tomorrows,” with a fantastic crescendo to the hook that helps give this album a dose of energy. Sure, it’s folk-inspired Americana that’s generally moody – again, the theme is fairly bleak in its own right – but there’s so much warmth to the actual presentation that it’s easy to like anyway. Though I will say the distortion leading into the straightforward country tones of “Love That’s Wild” have never sounded that pleasant, and for as great as the fiddle sounds on “Madelyn,” it also reflects a more rugged, straightforward style that doesn’t play well to Caudle’s vocal strengths, and likely set the groundwork for Caudle’s Better Hurry Up from this year, now that I think about it.
Again, the story is all open to interpretation. For as bleak as the narrative is, it doesn’t end with a clean resolution, which may be for the better. A character has clearly lost hope for what’s ahead, but as for what’s next for him … who knows? I will say, though, that the ending elevates this project: first with “Six Feet From The Flowers,” which is a blunt, brutal outlook on his current situation that the previous tracks clearly lead up to, and then it ends as it began – where the “until it’s over, I’m lost without you” hook is such a small, clever detail to connect it to the opening track. It’s a subtle detail I’ve always loved, and whereas that opening track introduces the general story, it hits with blunter effectiveness when repeated at its end. Surprise, surprise – it’s another bleak, sad album from the past decade I loved. But rarely did an album present itself with as much deft craftsmanship and heart as this one did, let alone present itself with such consistency.