This review roundup – as well as any further review roundups for the year – will feature thoughts on albums stuck in my backlog, with this edition spotlighting recent releases from Charley Crockett, Austin Lucas and Taylor Swift. If there’s an album you know of that I haven’t covered either here or at Country Universe, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll try to squeeze it in before the end of the year. Fair warning, too – the Austin Lucas review gets political, and if you’re burned out from that from the past week, that’s totally understandable.
Charley Crockett, Welcome to Hard Times
I’ve wanted to talk about Charley Crockett for a long time now, and given how quickly he releases new music, it’s been hard to catch up with everything thus far. But this shorter review format certainly helps, especially considering that, while I’ve always admired how Crockett is a multifaceted character whose music is a gigantic melting pot of roots, country, blues and folk, I’ve struggled to say I’ve loved an album of his thus far. Part of it, again, is the quick release schedule, and how that leads to diminished returns for material that can feel half-baked and lacking in greater detail. But part of it is also its full embrace of vintage pickups that can sound a bit gimmicky at points. It just largely hasn’t been for me.
With that said, I would call Welcome to Hard Times an overall improvement, if only because the mix finally feels well-rounded and a fair bit richer than previous efforts. The piano does most of the heavy lifting here, whether it’s to play off the organ to sell an inviting, yet seedy establishment in the title track, or play to something bouncier against the pedal steel on “Tennessee Special.” But again, part of that rushed feeling can creep up when you hear “Don’t Cry,” where it’s clear it could have used some fiddle to make that track feel a bit less quaint. The album doesn’t sport a long runtime, but it does blend together in the middle from a lack of real punch and momentum. Fine, but familiar, too. What impressed me most was when Crockett aimed darker, like the galloping percussion against the ghostly swell of pedal steel on “Run Horse Run,” or a few excellent cuts that close out the album in “Blackjack County Chain” and “The Poplar Tree,” the latter of which plays to a melodic, jangly folk arrangement in the banjo pickups and is easily one of his best tracks yet. Even the dreamier touches accenting “Heads You Win” play well to his higher register on the hook – it’s a stellar moment that proves he can aim for higher stakes and often doesn’t, sadly.
Of course, that criticism mostly applies to the writing, where there’s no real thematic arc, but plenty of tales of isolated, wandering troubadours that, granted, Crockett possesses the charisma to flesh out well enough, but never to the point of feeling distinct. It feels archetypal in the ultimately journey of tortured loneliness being some spiritual odyssey to test someone’s love. Sure, there’s plenty of fantasy and escapism that’s pulled of well on “Run Horse Run,” but then there’s “Don’t Cry,” which alludes to his touring commitments as a musician contributing to his distance between him and his significant other. But it’s what isn’t said that reflects the larger problems of this album – that being that, without those fuller details, he just looks selfish for testing her commitment and should just let her go; they’d probably both be happier. It’s why I appreciate “Heads You Win” so much more for framing the narrator as fostering regrets for his actions taken in the collapse of the relationship. Again, too, the final tracks are some of its best, with “Blackjack County Chain” finding that archetypal outlaw captured and tortured for his actions, only to revolt and earn it, if only to show how no one deserves that kind of torture. And while I like the classic country melody driving “The Man That Time Forgot,” it’s “The Poplar Tree” that impresses me more, which frames the typical wild west cowboy narrative as something much darker and lonelier than what’s usually implied. As it stands, though, I see the overall appeal – really, I do. But I’m not quite all the way there yet with Crockett, even if this album did win me over a fair bit more than I expected. (Strong 6/10)
- Favorite tracks: “The Poplar Tree,” “Heads You Win,” “Run Horse Run,” “Blackjack County Chain”
- Least favorite track: “Don’t Cry”
Austin Lucas, Alive In The Hot Zone
I’ve heard a good point echoing around musical releases this year – with COVID-19 completely shutting down tours, how long will the music of 2020 live on without that bedrock support? Even now, many artists have chosen to move ahead with new music to maintain some sort of presence, and I don’t think I’m alone in stating that any album that came out before March feels like it came out over a decade ago by now.
And then there’s a genuine question of how to capture that unrest, if we even should at all. That extends beyond just a virus, of course, especially when political tensions have rarely ever been as high as they’ve been for the past several months. It’s hard to accurately capture to its fullest extent in one song, and while there have been many genuinely good attempts that capture the general angst and mood, there are also ones that I predict will age poorly, if only because there comes a point when specificity can quickly date a work.
Still, I looked forward to hearing Austin Lucas’ take on it, especially when the punk background has always given his country-leaning works a well-worn edge and bridges the topical divide quite well. He’s one of the most insightful poets out there, and it’s a shame that bad record deals over the years kept him from reaching the heights he deserved, especially when his age has now inevitably caught with him. I should have covered Immortal Americans a few years ago, but hey, better late than never – is Alive in the Hot Zone the listen we need for right now?
Well, sadly, not really, and this is probably the worst first Lucas album I could have discussed for this website. There’s certainly an angry weariness that colors its best moments, but I like I said before, political works that only discuss current events without discussing the deeper systemic issues don’t typically age well. I think of American Aquarium’s “A Better South” or Tré Burt’s “Under the Devil’s Knee” for better examples of showing how the past informs the present. This reminds me most of Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury in the way it stews away in a nihilistic burnout without offering much beyond that. Heck, the first track, “Already Dead,” references how, because the other side can’t see the light, there’s no point in even trying to fight for something better. Look, there’s a certain element of truth in framing how echo chambers destroy any chance of having needed conversations, but the solution won’t come in just giving up.
Granted, given that this is also an album where the pandemic shapes the larger themes – and was written in its earliest days while Lucas was stuck in Germany and couldn’t get back home – I can’t say that uncertain despair isn’t an understandable reaction, either. It’s what makes the smolder behind the mindless escapism of “Drive” hit with so much potency in trying desperately to find an answer or some vestige of peace. Sadly, though, it’s also a rare moment where the production grants the rougher guitar tones the punch and drive they need to connect on a deeper level. Otherwise … look, I get cranking up the distortion to a point, but not when it completely washes out the mix or even Lucas himself, the worst example likely being “American Pyre” or the ending of “Anyone.” Again, if you want the muscle to support the work, heighten the groove sections – again, “Drive” is a fantastic example, and despite its shortcomings, “Already Dead” is too – or opt for a greater variety in the actual mix. This … well, it ends on a bright note with “Holy Sparrow” and earns a genuine atmospheric swell that manages to feel cathartic, but this is a sour listen that’s been performed better and with more empathy from other artists this year. It’s an album meant specifically for 2020, and I don’t predict it having much on an impact beyond that. (Very strong 5/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Drive,” “Holy Sparrow”
- Least favorite track: “Anyone”
Taylor Swift, folklore
This move was inevitable for Taylor Swift, but I think most critics were caught off-guard by this pivot anyway, not only for the surprise release date, but for the general timing in relation to where Taylor Swift’s career arc stands right now. I get that I cover mostly country-related releases, but I think most critics in that lane wondered when Swift would make her “return to roots” project – maybe at some point down the road when the hype just wasn’t what it used to be and she wanted to focus on a more mature sound.
On the other hand, though, I get it. With last year’s Lover being her first release for Republic, it’s understandable why she’d want to re-establish her public and artistic persona, and I’m in the same boat as others as thinking that’s what she did there – all while pivoting to a more mature style that felt more distinct to the artist she had become. But with this year throwing every release schedule off-track and the general mood ringing with more angst and unease, we might as well get that next step now. I should stress, however, that folklore is not a return to country music for Swift, even despite “betty” being released as a single to the format and being one of the better radio releases we’ve had this year. If anything, it’s an indie-folk album pulling from a very distinct pop aesthetic that plays well to Swift’s strengths, but also feels a bit familiar in its actual execution.
Still, the generally rich mix, spare acoustics and gentle keys also creates a beautiful, tentative soundscape that’s heightened by Swift’s expressive abilities as a singer and performer, and by how she’s able to leverage the generally softer mood with theatrical moments that, because of an increased focus on the stories told, never feel oversold. If anything, this is likely Swift’s most relatable collection to date, partially because of an outward connection that shows those natural next steps of maturity hinted at on Lover. There’s still certainly a part of her perspective in the writing, and while the comparisons on “the last great american dynasty” are pretty on-the-nose in framing how a misunderstood woman is generally vilified for both her choices and circumstances beyond her control, the stomping populism means the story told shines much brighter beyond that surface-level analysis. Or take the sting permeating throughout “my tears ricochet,” the general defeatism of “this is me trying” and the freedom ringing from “invisible string,” all framed through metaphorical relationships, yet further framed through the subtext of Swift’s past relationship with Big Machine Records. Again, it’s all up to speculation – which can be said about any of these discussions – but the fatigue gets to her on “this is me trying” and shows how despite her reputation, she’s able to be broken, too, and there’s a devastation to that arc.
Of course, that also plays into overanalyzing certain clustered sub-narratives that don’t lead to a particularly cohesive arc, and can leave this project feeling scattered as a whole. The most notable one is the trilogy surrounding the love triangle of “cardigan,” “august” and “betty,” and while they work in tandem with each other – particularly “august,” with its subtle detail of how this “other woman” understands her summer love isn’t made to last, but believes it’s because he had to depart for school, rather than find out the truth of their relationship – I’m more torn on them as individual songs. The “betty” character is made a bit more insufferable with that added context, actually, but even without it, it’s about an obnoxious high school boy who feels entitled to a second chance. The harmonica is really nice, but flip over to “cardigan,” and that’s where the general production problems start to arise. The percussion is often thin and inorganic, and while the murkier reverb is often used to craft some spacious, beautiful moments, there’s also points, like here, where it feels like it’s washing out the mix. I’d echo the same thoughts for “seven,” where it’s clear it’s aiming for something darker, yet doesn’t nail the atmosphere in the same way as, say, the confrontation between two exes matched against the spare piano on “exile.” And that’s before mentioning how Swift’s tone is noticeably more breathy to nail that darker swell and doesn’t quite get there.
Going back to the sub-narrative point, though, this album runs long, and when then there’s not a lot of variation to the actual tempos or instrumental balance in the backhalf, certain cuts like “illicit affairs” and “invisible string” can sound a bit too quaint for their own good. Granted, when the writing is what takes the center spotlight, I get it, but I also hear a better variation in the groove-driven rollick of “the last great american dynasty” or the cinematic swell driving “exile,” “mirrorball,” and “august” and know this album could have punched higher at points. Familiar as it can sometimes be, Swift’s framing and tone never makes it feel conventional, either. And I think it’s important to note that there is an underlying theme of amplifying past actions that have a distinct impact on the present – rooted in past fictional narratives drawing upon Americana at times, but never content to dwell in outright nostalgia. If you want the more direct evidence, the fact that she started in country music means this pivot toward indie-folk isn’t that surprising, yet is still informed by where her path has taken her thus far.
It’s why the aforementioned teenage love trilogy isn’t told from Swift’s perspective like it has been before, and that someone else’s story can look a lot different than hers, even if the complex slew of emotions is inescapable for anyone. It’s what amplifies “exile,” where Swift plays opposite to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for a chance encounter in public, with Vernon commenting on her quick rebound and general disinterest in him, all while she comments on how that jealousy is part of the point in hammering out her own lingering feelings for him. Yet the misspent past relationship carried its own bad blood that they can’t properly convey to each other, directly or otherwise, and there’s a dramatic weight to the swell of strings and piano that feels earned because of that devastation.
As for the album as a whole, though, there’s a part of me that wishes the album aimed higher more consistently, because tracks like “exile” and “the last great american dynasty” are among her best. Part of that has to do with wishing for more warmth as a whole, especially when the sharper drum machines can clip some otherwise great tracks. But as a temporary pivot, there’s also a lot here to appreciate, especially when it comes to writing that’s among her best and, ultimately, shows a writer and performer evolving her sound for the better. (Strong 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “exile” (feat. Bon Iver), “the last great american dynasty,” “august,” “this is me trying,” “mirrorball”
- Least favorite track: “seven”