At this point, Joseph Huber feels like one of the last active links to the underground country movement of yesteryear – back when the country-meets-punk bands were inaccessible and very unknown and social media wasn’t quite the marketing tool or fiery hellscape it’s required to be today.
I say it partly in jest, of course. Compared to the late 2000s and early 2010s, when any faction of independent or underground country – or really, anything not played on FM radio – got virtually ignored, we’re in an exciting time of continuous progress that continues to evolve how music reaches one’s ears. But it’s also kind of refreshing to walk into a record these days that doesn’t inundate listeners with numerous pre-release tracks or press releases and just seems to run parallel to the musical rat race as a whole. And with Huber – now on his sixth solo record post-.357 String Band (and there’s your obligatory mention for the day) – that’s exactly what you get.
Compared to 2019’s more expansive-sounding Moondog, The Downtowner dials Huber’s sound back a bit and plays in closer proximity to traditional territory of his from before – more specifically heavier projects like 2010’s Bury Me Where I Fall and 2017’s The Suffering Stage. And while that may seem like a step backward, I’d argue it plays to his strengths a bit better than some of the more bloated moments on that last album. Although I would also say that, as far as accessibility is concerned, The Downtowner isn’t so much a tough nut to crack as it is an album that requires the patience to really sink in further. It’s meditative, a bit of a slow burn with not a lot of breathing room, and it can seem to run far longer than its nine-track length would imply. It’s rewarding and worth the time to let it hook you, but there’s also a lot to unpack here.
And, though Huber’s recording style may be off-putting to those unfamiliar with his name, it is that faraway tone that’s become a unique staple and strength of his work dating all the way back to his solo debut. His voice is always nestled deep within the mix, but it isn’t buried within it so much as just communicated from afar, able to cultivate natural atmosphere without relying on more traditional studio effects to get there. “Sepia-toned” is the most common-used way to describe it, and indeed, there’s always a warmth and oddly nostalgic quality to how it’s all conveyed, which has always played well to his penchant for old-time, folk-inspired melodies and subject matter typically rooted in faded memories.
And there may not be a more on-the-nose example of all of that than The Downtowner, where aside from a pair of beautifully poetic openers that play off one another in “The Orchards of Fear” and “In Liberty’s Mourning,” this may be Huber’s most straightforward album yet to explore love, loss, triumphs, failures, and every emotion in between. But I think if there’s a more defining characteristic to this album compared to other Huber albums, it’d come in both a sense of scope and generally more personal and mature subject matter that forces listeners to look inward. And it’s evident almost right away from the welcome addition of strings on “In Liberty’s Mourning” (which also strengthens “Thankful”), which provides an ethereal shimmer and enough wide open space to let the more abstract poetry about human infallibility provide the roadmap for this album – and let the environmentalist streak in the writing shine through that also paints the metaphors used in “The Spirit of Tennessee” to great effect.
Indeed, Huber’s always had that old folk-like sensibility to his writing, but there’s no sprawling epics this time around; The Downtowner is built more around lost time and faded memories with loved ones and loved ones that never were, mostly framed around relationships on tracks like “Dog Days,” “The Spirit of Tennessee,” and “When I Was You and You Were Me,” but more about the passage of time and the realization that we’re not getting that time back. It’s why his faraway style is an asset that serves these abandoned characters well, especially when he’s always been subtlely great at lending even the headiest material a great melody and hook – seriously, let this album sit for a while, and it’s amazing how much of it will seem familiar even upon just the second listen. Of course, that’s also a note on the fantastic instrumental moments that anchor this album as well, from the rollicking pedal steel and fiddle interplay carrying “The Spirit of Tennessee,” the jaunty, Celtic-inspired chord progressions of “Dog Days,” the intensity of the progression and fiddle and mandolin interplay on “When I Was You And You Were Me,” or the sneakily great acoustic groove carrying out “I Spoke Too Soon.”
But I think there’s a weird dichotomy to this album, too. I compared this project earlier to darker albums like Bury Me When I Fall and The Suffering Stage, but in truth, this reminisces on its nostalgic moments with a general fondness for what was – where there’s not so much regret over where these characters are at now so much as a thankfulness that they had those experiences at all and can easily recall them at will, making a track called “Thankful” seem almost too on-the-nose as a way to describe it. An overall simple sentiment, but so effective and relatable in its execution, that it’s almost paradoxically poetically beautiful. With that said, I do think this project suffers from pacing issues at points, particularly near the end. The play on words with “The Heavyweight” makes for a clumsier moment, not to mention how the song plods and, as far as long-lost love songs go, is handled better elsewhere here. And bleeding into “Thankful,” a very slow and draining song I do otherwise like, doesn’t help matters much. If anything, I do wish this album had another more fast-paced moment akin to “When I Was You and You Were Me” to maintain its momentum, but it does end strong with “Will You Still Know?”
And besides, for as simple and straightforward as it is in theory, The Downtowner is an album you’re meant to sit with – a project that views its nostalgia as an asset rather than a hindrance, where the emphasis is not on what never will be again, but on what once was and what still is worth appreciating, even if only in one’s own individual mind.
- Favorite tracks: “In Liberty’s Mourning,” “The Spirit of Tennessee,” “Dog Days,” “When I Was You And You Were Me,” “I Spoke Too Soon,” “Will You Still Know?”
- Least favorite track: “The Heavyweight”