Album Review: Arlo McKinley – ‘This Mess We’re In’

The John Prine recommendation and subsequent signing to his label might have helped get Arlo McKinley’s name in the door for the release of his last project, but this time around one could say his momentum is all his own – and for good reason, too. Die Midwestern drew acclaim for its approach to sad country-inspired folk, rife with flavor and loose, raw, and sleazy in the right way … but it’s also a project that was just a slight step away from true greatness for me, mostly because it to meandered in spots and featured some inconsistent production and mixing choices. Even still, his approach to very dark and lived-in material has always been a real selling point for me (it’s the tried-and-true “sad songs make me happy” mentality, duh), and in describing latest album The Mess We’re In … well, it’s odd. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to Jason Isbell’s post-Southeastern work or, perhaps more specifically, Ruston Kelly’s first two projects – the first of which forces some hard confrontations with one’s own self while the second aims to find forgiveness and peace, even if it doesn’t always come and old demons will inevitably come roaring back now and then.

But that usually also comes with the notion that something has been sacrificed along the way, or that to achieve that peace means scaling the stakes back, which isn’t quite accurate for this project. If anything, I’m happy to see McKinley swing for the fences not only with a more robust and melodic approach to his typical brand of country-folk – the fiddle here in particular sounds phenomenal against the old-school splashes of barroom piano and organ – but also take further steps toward brasher rock and folk-pop moments that can let that emotional tension really erupt in the best possible way, and with tons of hollow, weathered cracks in the textures to add weight to its sentiments. In a way, I could draw even further comparisons to what Ian Noe did with his latest project – a step toward something more strikingly diverse and brighter, where even if I can trace the aforementioned Prine and Bob Dylan influences in the delivery and execution, I can’t really draw a straight line back. Granted, it is the more intimate moments here that, much like Die Midwestern, truly anchor this project, where even though old demons and new challenges present themselves to McKinley in his attempt to move forward, he’s going to push on as best as he can – often because there’s more at stake than just his own happiness.

It’s why I love the subtle dual meaning of the title hook in “I Don’t Mind,” where it’s clear he does mind that his own reckless actions caused a falling out between him and his partner and that he’s not getting that second chance to try again. So he’s going to put on that brave face and let them move on, knowing there’s even the slightest reward in that, bittersweet as it is. It’s simple, but effective – even more so considering that McKinley’s nasal and craggy but still lived-in delivery can do a lot of heavy lifting in conveying the hurt behind this material (and thankfully, he’s mostly placed right in the mix this time around and comes through better).

I mean, hell, “Back Home” is basically Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (well, that last infamous verse anyway) in actuality and without the happy ending. It’s not the most original arc for an album working with this sound, but McKinley is the sort of detailed writer who can make this material feel well-realized – where even the straightforward love songs come with a weighted context of a hard-fought battle to get to that point of happiness. Even against an otherwise quaint, sleepy arrangement, “Stealing Dark From the Night Sky” is almost literally about escaping the darkest throes of depression and turning toward the light – difficult as hell but not impossible with the right support behind, where who you were doesn’t have to consume who you still could be today. And in between comes those flickers of hope – the slow, ragged burn of “Dancing Days,” and moments like the title track ballad and “Where You Want Me” (with that great melodic hook in the fiddle line) where hope is found in earnest.

Granted, I will also say that, like with Die Midwestern, consistency can be a slight issue as a whole, namely in how McKinley can tend to repeat himself or explore the same general emotions and feelings without differentiating certain tracks well enough. It really is an album bolstered more by its highlights than a consistent core. But those sort of imperfections are to be expected with an expansion in sound and idea like this, as while the booming textures and wily organ certainly fit the mood of “To Die For” in examining McKinley’s frustrations with what he could have done differently to fix a dead relationship and what might have been, it does feel a bit overcooked as a whole.

The same could be said for “Here’s to the Dying,” the closing track that feels more broadly sketched and out of place as the ending point for an album about fighting for the here and now. Both tracks are moments of brashness that can also feel sonically out of place for the album as a whole … until you get to the ragged, blazing firestorm that is “Rushintherug,” that is – a moment of weakness where those old demons and insecurities do crawl back and sink in further on a night when he doesn’t need it. It’s a frankly relatable, out-of-nowhere feeling that can creep up sometimes for no apparent reason, but in wishing so desperately to be able to shake it and push on through knowing it’s just a feeling … man, if this isn’t the emotional highpoint and glorious album centerpiece that truly pulls this album through for me, I don’t know what is. McKinley’s albums tend to be much slower burns for me, and while Die Midwestern somewhat faded on me as the year went on, I could maybe see this growing further.

(8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “I Don’t Mind,” “Back Home” (feat. Logan Halstead), “Stealing Dark From the Night Sky,” “Dancing Days,” “Rushintherug,” “Where You Want Me”
  • Least favorite track: “Here’s to the Dying”

Buy or stream the album.

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