This is one of those cases where finding the proper way to start the review feels almost impossible.
And if you’re a long-time reader of this website, that may surprise you. After all, Charles Wesley Godwin made my favorite album of the year in 2019 with Seneca – a debut brimming with potential that still somehow managed to surpass anything else I heard that year, thanks to a compelling presence through Godwin himself, and production with phenomenal balance and punch to elevate his distinctly West Virginian tales. In a year with plenty of other excellent debut efforts, his was the sharpest and even rose above works by veteran artists. Even now, I’m surprised it resonated with me as much as it did then, but then I go back to it and I get it all over again. It’s a personal listen made universal by its emotional resonance.
But this was, again, Godwin’s debut (not counting his days with Union Sound Treaty), and part of me did fear if praising Seneca too highly would establish unfair expectations for future releases, especially when Seneca isn’t the kind of album one can make twice (at least not well or without rehashing old ideas). That was made clear in the lead-up to his sophomore release, How the Mighty Fall, reportedly a more universal affair and the most natural progression to expect coming off of that debut. Good thing, too, because in comparison with 2019, there are more albums that have come out this year alone to explore rural culture from a specific geographical lens – think Pony Bradshaw’s Calico Jim or Cole Chaney’s Mercy – and considering how Godwin was ahead of the curve, you need that next chapter to tell the fuller story over time.
Now, full disclosure: I’ve been listening to How the Mighty Fall comfortably for around a month now, and it’s honestly a case where I’m glad to have had the time to absorb a project like this. If the critical part of me wants to immediately see how it stacks up to Seneca … the more natural part of me knows better. This is an entirely different beast from that debut, aiming for something much darker and desperate this time around yet no less grander in capturing the windswept beauty of that struggle, all the same. So in answering a different question of whether or not it’s excellent in its own right and a worthy successor … well, absolutely. And considering that Godwin is now two-for-two, if there’s a time to start paying attention, it’s now.
And the thing is, while there were a lot of specific traits I liked about Seneca that came through in the writing and production, when I consider the core elements Godwin and his team brought to the table regardless, I’m reminded now of what I really loved about his style and presentation. He’s an absolutely commanding performer behind the microphone, capable of conveying subtlety through low-key desperation, melancholy, or, on “Jesse” and “Blood Feud,” legitimately righteous anger. And the slightly deeper timbre to his voice adds a natural nuance and maturity to his material that can sound weathered without also necessarily sounding exhausted or fried. There’s a richness to his delivery that’s always naturally elevated his material.
And thankfully, that’s once again a positive note about the instrumentation and production, too. I will admit that this album doesn’t quite have the same bolder refinement that Seneca did in its approach to tone, and upon my first few listens I did miss that. But again, this is an album aiming for something much more starkly universal, where the focus this time around isn’t so much settling into a life established as it is finding a life that you find stability within or one that can settle you down. And so the best way for me to describe the album would be … uneasy and perpetually on edge, where the beauty comes through more in the subtle details this time around.
Take “Over Yonder,” which opens the album on a brighter note courtesy of the very spare acoustics that aims to find peace through solitude before opening things up to allow the softer touches of pedal steel or piano and fiddle to creep in, or the bigger picture of then finding peace not through solitude, but by finding others to share that life with together. And that’s before mentioning how the drums will kick in halfway through to establish both a jollier sense of rollick and optimism toward building that life and the larger theme of the album entirely. It was worth mentioning with Seneca, and it’s worth it here – in terms of striking compositions that build to phenomenal swells off their progressions, both Godwin and producer Al Torrence are quickly establishing themselves as masters of the craft. I love how the fiddle snakes its way through the low end of “Lyin’ Low” as a fitting testament to the sentiment, and how “Jesse” is led by dark, thick acoustic strumming as it establishes a cheating scandal before bringing in drums for the second verse for more pounding ferocity.
And then there’s the trilogy of “Strong,” “Bones,” and “Gas Well,” all of which bring a more spacious, sharper rock muscle that I think really establishes some well-earned momentum and flair halfway through for this album. I mean, “Strong” carries a groove akin to the best of ‘80s-inspired heartland rock, and “Gas Well” shuffles through ‘70s country swagger with a blues edge at the beginning, where everything is calm, before pivoting toward bluegrass and southern Gothic tones halfway through to denote its tension in the narrative – and that’s before mentioning how there’s even a well-earned cry of horns toward the end. It’s such a phenomenal song on mood and pacing alone.
But really, even if you’re not paying attention to the deeper details, there’s such a refreshingly crystal-clear tone to this album, and whether it’s playing things more low-key or going for those more anthemic moments, it’s got that needed swell to back it either way. I was originally not as sold on pushing everything from the vocals to the guitars and fiddles to the front of the mix on “Blood Feud,” but when you consider how much that song is a frenzy as it is, I stopped caring; it’s unlike anything in Godwin’s discography thus far, but I dug the hell out of it.
But look, good tones and charisma will only take an album so far. It will only transcend greatness if the writing holds up … and here’s the area where I was initially most conflicted on, because I wouldn’t say the stories this time around are as richly detailed from beginning to end from before like, say, “Seneca Creek” or “Windmill (Keep on Turning).” If anything, I’d almost describe these songs as lacking any sort of ending at all, caught between hopeless despair and answers that don’t come easy, where we, the listeners, are the ones left to decide how things really end. And while there are parts of this album where that’s a flaw, I do see it more as a feature with every passing listen. Godwin described this album as more universal in trying to capture common struggles of common people, and indeed, I’d say this is a much darker and even more gripping project overall because of it. Setting is is still very much important in establishing these characters and their stories.
Unlike that album – which was largely about finding one’s own way to honor a complicated family legacy in distinctly West Virginian territory that could mine both joy and despair from it – How the Mighty Fall is more about finding a place to call home to begin with, and there’s never really a happy ending here. Not to say that there aren’t brighter moments to add a touch of levity to the project. Again, “Over Yonder” is a really potent way to open the album, and “Lyin’ Low” acts as the examination of the stoic father figure just trying to survive and provide as best as he can for his family. There’s also “Temporary Town,” which finds a character uneasy with where they are in life now, but optimistic enough to dream that a life where things work out could happen. Even “Strong,” despite on paper being mostly just a simple ode to resilience, is too earnestly anthemic and ragged with where it’s coming from to come across as cloying, hence why it helps to have a writer who greatly understands his own character’s struggles, because this time around they could be anyone’s struggles.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Even Seneca resonated nonetheless, but if there’s happiness to be found this time around, it’s in dreams yet to be fulfilled rather than what’s already been accomplished, which adds a grimacing air to the project when juxtaposed against, say, “Gas Well,” which finds a character desperate enough to rob an armored truck after facing the foreclosure of his land. And that it ends with the heavy burden of knowing how success of that heist will still lead to a haunting of the conscience and soul afterwards kind of says it all.
These songs are still at least distinctly rural and usually end on vague notes, but they’re not quite cliffhangers so much as subtle nods to what doesn’t need to be said, like how the love triangle sketched on “Cranes of Potter” leads to a woman’s murder … and how her body is never found, thus robbing the characters and story itself of its deserved justice. Even “Blood Feud” is a mindwarp, an utterly insane and kickass song about seeking revenge on someone who messed with the lead character’s brother. It doesn’t necessarily suggest murder is coming, but those final moments in which the song slows down and ends on a chilling howl … man. Even the more manic tracks like that are about holding on in times of desperation, but unlike Seneca, there’s no ties to anything here. If anything, the lack of a stronger bond to family history this time around means these characters have nothing to lose and will go to any lengths necessary to survive, protect their loved ones, and or just protect their own sanity, and Godwin is such a compelling storyteller that he can really make those themes hit with a ton of impact and ramp up the dramatic stakes excellently. And for as much as I’ve referenced that album time and time again, I will say this album has a much better sense of pacing and a greater consistency to it as a whole. It’s damn-near cinematic in scope.
Now, for as great as this album is, I do have my nitpicks. For one, while I get the reasoning behind the inclusion of “Needle Fall Down” from the Union Sound Treaty days – especially given how it somewhat ties into the themes of facing the end of life feeling like it was a wasted journey of untapped personal potential – I actually think it sounds out of place here. The rest of the album is at least about finding ways to make it no matter how bleak things get, but this is more about the end of it all and mere acceptance rather than finding the spark to turn it all around. Plus, I appreciate the stripped-down arrangement compared to the original, but it doesn’t have the same robustness to the composition in the same way that even similar acoustic-leaning tracks like “Cranes of Potter” or “Over Yonder” have here. And while I do get the choice to leave endings intentionally vague at points to let the listeners fill in the gaps, there are a few moments I wish pushed harder by adding possibly another verse or bridge to tie everything together. “Jesse” is a great and righteously angry look at a lover’s betrayal, but I wish it explored beyond just the mere initial shock and awe of finding out about the cheating in question. And while “Lost Without You” is the kind of track one would expect to find toward the end to complete the story of working too hard only for everything to fall away in the end anyway, I have to admit, I did find the song a bit lacking in sharper details to really sketch out this particular couple’s life story explored here.
But there’s still the part of me that enjoys how this album ends on a bleaker note, with a phenomenal title track in which Godwin is also two-for-two in making his closing tracks deceptively among the best of the bunch. And yet, even if I expected this to be the next chapter in Godwin’s story on a thematic level, I must admit that How the Mighty Fall caught me off guard. Again, it’s bleaker and more unstable, and while it absolutely should lead to a real breakthrough for him, I know this could be a tougher sell than Seneca. Even with that said, on pretty much every level, How the Mighty Fall is excellent and easily places Godwin on another level at this point. In other words, while this album mainly explores what lengths good characters will go to in desperate times – in turn trapping themselves as among the mighty yet to fall because of pressure, unhappiness, or hubris – it’s penned by a mighty songwriter in his own right who, with any luck, shall not fall or falter any time soon.
- Favorite tracks: “Gas Well,” “Blood Feud,” “Over Yonder,” “Jesse,” “Temporary Town,” “Strong,” “Cranes of Potter,” “How the Mighty Fall”
- Least favorite track: “Needle Fall Down”