Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
This feature took a small break, and while some may argue it’s well past its expiration date (it is, admittedly), truthfully, I had always planned to talk about a few selections specifically in October; if you’ve followed this blog for … any length of time, you shouldn’t be surprised.
I’ll be honest, though – I never would have expected Corb Lund to be one of those names I had in mind for the spooky season. That’s not a slight, either. The Hurtin’ Albertan has pretty much built his career on side-splitting, humorous cowboy tales and musings from an eccentric rambler. Formulaic to a point, I suppose, but when his albums usually comprise everything from western-swing to rockabilly to straightforward country, I find it hard to complain.
The thing is, there’s usually more to it than that anyway. When he gets more contemplative, like on 2005’s Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer, which I hold as probably my favorite work of his, he proves to be an incredibly interesting poet. It’s dark, but in a way that’s entrancing, rather than off-putting or “moody.”
Hence why, in 2012, his shift toward a sound and narrative that was more rugged all around in Cabin Fever was welcome, but long overdue. For the most part, it’s a Corb Lund album, and the aforementioned qualities I mentioned still shape this release … but there’s something more noticeably visceral all around. These are cowboy tales, for sure, but ones that are a bit more universal in their overall framing, making us care about antiheroes, if anything.
Which, of course, ties into the overall point of the album – and is likely one of few examples I can think of where artists break the fourth wall with their intended audience – that being a deconstruction of the misconceptions outsiders have of that kind of outlaw lifestyle. It’s personally fulfilling, for sure, but it comes with a cold isolationist streak that can feel empty, too. For as much fun as Lund is having poking fun of the mystique surrounding it, it’s probably his darkest and loneliest release as well, and it’s a side of his that even he has a hard time understanding.
But it shows itself from the opener, “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” where the chorus may be catchy and the interplay between the percussion, plucky acoustics and buzzy guitar tones may lead to a stomping groove, but is still, ultimately, a retreat into isolation caused by an oil shortage. Sure, he’ll survive; he was born to endure those hardships. But there’s also a focus on a breaking point in society that can’t be ignored either.
On the note of that song, though, and to get one of my few nitpicks out of the way, while I respect the shift in tone with the content, and while the instrumentation often sits well in the mix and establishes some pretty groove-heavy tunes – I’m thinking of the stomp-and-holler “Dig Gravedigger Dig” and the deceptively cheery tone of “Cows Around” overall for immediate examples – I’m not sure they always have the bite in the production necessary to fully flesh them out. The album ends on a surprisingly dark note with its final tracks, yet I couldn’t help but want more from “Pour ‘Em Kinda Strong.”
Outside of that, the other elements support the project surprisingly well, including Lund himself. He’s never been a great singer, but he’s got a dry sense of humor and tons of charisma, so he’s never really needed to be one. Still, even though I’ve never considered him a convincing balladeer, “September” and “One Left In The Chamber” are some of his strongest cuts to date, if only because they further highlight the weird, paradoxical fulfillment and loneliness that undermines the entire project. On the former cut, he understands his significant other’s reasons for leaving him and why, ultimately, his lifestyle isn’t the kind for two people. Hell, I’m still convinced “Cows Around” is his way of trolling his audience in a surprisingly effective, fun way. And though the title of the latter cut pretty much gives itself away, with Lund, you keep expecting a twist or turnaround of the hook, yet it’s just as dark as it implies. Plus, it leads into “Pour ‘Em Kinda Strong,” where the wanted outlaw doesn’t strut into the bar with any sort of swaggering bravado, but rather accepts that his time is drawing near, and even when that disturbingly dark twist comes, he doesn’t flinch. He had his day.
That, too, is the other large theme – acceptance of one’s choices in life and making the best of them, if only because it’s a lonely ride to the bottom at the end anyway. And if you really want to live like a wild west outlaw, that feeling will, ultimately, come in the loneliness within, not from a predetermined setting or from dressing a part. Part of why “(You Ain’t A Cowboy) If You Ain’t Been Bucked Off” rings so true is for its simplicity in understanding that.
Let’s get real, though. While there’s a body count to this album, it’s still got its fair share of tracks that aim to highlight the recurring arc without indulging too much in that darkness. Lund and Hayes Carll have their fun poking fun at those who believe their actions won’t ultimately come back around to bite them on “Bible On The Dash,” “Mein Deutsches Motorrad” is a love letter to a German motorcycle that acts as Lund’s attempt to channel the Beach Boys, of all things, and “Gothest Girl I Can” … I’ll be honest, I’ve never known what to make of that one.
Which is to say it goes a bit overboard at times – I’m not sure if the intended banality of “Drink It Like You Mean It” has enough punch to cover how overall stupid it is, but it’s an album that can make a very real point regarding isolationism without ever feeling too campy or too dark for its own good. Really, it’s the sort of album only Lund could make, and while the near-self-referential takedowns of its main themes may have, in hindsight, scanned as a “burn it down and start over” approach that predicted his shift toward an odd-fitting Muscle Shoals sound with 2015’s Things That Can’t Be Undone … followed by a five-year break until this year’s Agricultural Tragic that lacks the same firepower, I’m glad we have this anyway. Lund might not have delivered a ton of new music in the 2010s, but this was excellent enough to satiate that hunger and keep me from developing that cabin fever anyway.