This is one of my two most anticipated albums of the year thus far. The other is Ian Noe’s River Fools and Mountain Saints, and we’ll get to that in due time.
So for now, despite this being my fourth time I’ve directly written about William Clark Green, I do feel the need to establish further context, if only because it feels like he’s part of a Red Dirt era somewhat past. My original introduction was through 2015’s Ringling Road, an album I hold dear from my earliest days of writing, thanks to melodically tight, hook-driven songs with writing that … well, may not have been for everyone, due to the obvious signs of young bitterness that shone through. But after digging back further through his earliest albums, I became a fan pretty quickly, and just in time for him to be crowned by fans as the “next big thing” of the scene.
Flash forward seven years later, and it feels like the all the rage now surrounds younger artists like Koe Wetzel (which I’ve yet to understand), and it also feels that Green has settled not so much into the late stages of his career, but rather into something simply more befitting to him. He’s always released new music at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and since his last release was his collaboration with the Panhandlers outfit in 2020 that was more refined and mature in approach overall, it did leave me wondering where he’d go next. I admit, though, that after the disappointing Hebert Island from 2018, I was just hoping for a return to form, above all else.
Thankfully, I got exactly that with Baker Hotel, an album that manages to toe the line between Green’s more uniquely fun and bizarrely creative musings with an approach that feels a bit more lived-in and mature. I won’t say it’s perfect or without its flaws – we’ll get to them – but I had hoped for a rebound and ended up with an album I’ve been enjoying for nearly a month now. And in what has been a slow year thus far for new music, I’ll gladly take it.
Granted, that statement doesn’t extend to lead single “All You Got,” by far the worst track here and one that made it an awkward choice for my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature knowing that the full album was far better (I ended up reviewing the title track instead). Though it does signify one of the bigger changes to this album compared to past Green efforts: the instrumentation and production. Very early on you’re seeing not just a commitment to expanding Green’s artistic palette, but also that of the Red Dirt scene – all the more fitting, given that some would argue his music has always leaned more toward rock than country anyway. And you’re also seeing a commitment to pushing accessible production and tunes into territory with more atmospheric layers and depth, especially when the melodies and hooks are as solid as ever.
And though the album itself as a whole is great on the surface without requiring that deeper analysis, there are still compositional moments here to love that I think will go underappreciated: the jangly folk vibe and interweaving acoustics on “Feel Alive” that build to something anthemic when the pounding drums kick in to support content very much about finding pure cathartic joy, for example. Or take that excellently deep, richly atmospheric groove driving “Give a Damn” with just a hint of a minor swell to let that hook simmer. And that’s before dialing it back to just where certain songs will lean in tone, like the stabs at swamp against the frantic bass notes on the title track, the laidback groove defining “Dog Song,” or the foray into southern-rock on “All Pot No Chicken” that actually manages to have some teeth to it.
Granted, that’s also to say that this album is all over the place sonically, and while I do have my issues with length and pacing, they don’t really extend to this area of the album, outside of maybe how the atmospheric and more synthetic textures don’t really blend well or come together on “All You Got” until that killer end solo. For one, the main connection comes in the lyrical content and themes, and even as a loose collection, the individual highlights are pretty great on their own, whether they’re meant to be crass and over-the-top (in a good way) or say something more. I do wish this album expanded upon the initial promise of its title track to delve into slightly weirder territory – in this case, an exploration of an ominous, run-down, 17-story landmark in Mineral Wells, Texas, that I’d say is less interesting than what the theme would suggest, even if I do like the callbacks to “Ringling Road” (it’s sort of like if Luigi’s Mansion as a country song).
Still, while I’ve always appreciated Green’s work for being more tuneful than your average singer-songwriter affair, the main discussion point is in the writing, where once again Green delves into explosive relationships with bad blood on both sides. Only this time around there’s more regret for actions caused by Green’s characters and steps taken to grow afterward, be it through struggling to love someone new knowing he still loves someone else on “Me, Her and You,” or just knowing he’s not in the right head space to give his partner the life she deserves, thereby letting her go on the terrific “Anymore.”
Granted, anyone familiar with Green’s work knows things can also get hazy and toxic, too, and I would say that extends to the taunting on “All You Got” as well as the slightly jaded “Gun To Your Head,” not helped by how the latter track tries to incorporate some rougher distortion into the mix and doesn’t really come together. But they also get wildly stupid in a good way, like how he comes to terms with himself and his faults through the hilarious “Dog Song” or just through the absurdly frantic pacing of the title track. And yeah, you can also tell the weight and struggle of past years make their way into these conversations. But ironically enough, the cathartic passion of “Feel Alive” and the pure stomping populism of “All Pot No Chicken,” certain lines aside (“Red, white and blues?” Really?), make for two (sort of) pandemic-themed songs I actually really dig.
But the real conversation always circles back to growing up and managing expectations for where one is at now rather than where they were before. Though in terms of his examinations of the past, I’d argue “Give a Damn” is one of his best, and I like the more uncomfortably low-key yet gentle frankness that comes with approaching tougher conversations for himself on songs like “Getting Drunk” or “Leave Me Alone,” which may as well be the logical successor to American Aquarium’s “Losing Side of Twenty-Five,” as far as I’m concerned.
But I do have further nitpicks, namely in how the album runs long and loses steam until coming back around with two of its best closing tracks. “Best Friends” just felt incredibly boilerplate for what it was going for, and “Love to Hate,” while still pretty good, did feel similar thematically to better tracks that came before it. But as a whole, it ends strong and feels like a welcome return to form for an artist I’ve dearly missed, all while sporting some great tunes, to boot. It’s not one to miss.
- Favorite tracks: “Give a Damn,” “Me, Her and You,” “Anymore,” “All Pot No Chicken,” “Feel Alive,” “Dog Song,” “Getting Drunk”
- Least favorite track: “All You Got”