It’s fair to say that Adeem the Artist came into their own on last year’s Cast Iron Pansexual. Not to call it a debut record – they have a backlog of projects not available on most major streaming services – but it was an album that felt like a true introduction to who they and something of a breakout moment as well, even if it took an ironically long, hard road to get there.
And it shouldn’t have felt as ironic for country music then as it may have seemed. After all, for a genre that loves to tout its outlaws and celebrate a history of standing against the proverbial machine, you’d think it’d naturally be more welcoming of queer acts like Adeem both expanding upon that tradition and creating ones of their own. But that’s that difference between where the industry stands – the same one that would love to tell the general public that the next interchangeable, generic male act is the next big thing – and where the actual music has stood over time in speaking truth to power, which is why a lot of that album’s traditional flair is as essential to that identity as the lyrics and themes; it earned a place that was already its to begin with in the genre.
It’s also why they were able to successfully crowdfund their newest album, White Trash Revelry, which ahead of its release aimed to be a more involved project in nearly every regard, thanks to both an enthusiastic response to their last album as well as having the budget to expand upon its scope and ideas.
And indeed, it does just that, though I must admit White Trash Revelry took some twists and turns compared to its predecessor I didn’t seen coming but should have. It ostensibly carries over a lot of the same positive traits I loved about that last album: witty storytelling detail that can be either crushing or humorous, depending on what the mood calls for; a lead singer with the conversational tone and wit to let their dry humor punch effectively, or conversely add weight to the surprisingly plaintive moments of hardship here; and the same subtle warmth in the production and instrumentation, albeit with a more refined focus and playfulness to call their own to an even greater degree than before.
But the overall focus is different, shifting from the more personal grappling of identity on Cast Iron Pansexual in favor of a more outward-looking view, where their own focus and perspective is just as integral to the overall narrative and progression but also uses that same empathetic worldview to try and look through the eyes of other characters, too. And while I do plan on making certain parallels and comparisons because of that, I’ll also say that as an expansion to an already excellent foundation, White Trash Revelry really does come right the hell out of nowhere to be a late contender for one of 2022’s best projects.
So I think I’ll start with the overall changes in instrumentation and production, if only because they’re more straightforward than they may appear. Yes, it’s good to hear Adeem skirt away from more conventional acoustic singer-songwriter leanings in favor of an expanded sonic pallete this time around, and while I won’t say this album ever gets as experimental with any one individual moment the way it did with “Reclaim My Name” on their last project, all of that subtle potency and warmth I loved about their last album is both evident here and amplified. Hell, just off the fade-in with those beautifully glistening acoustics and wistful pedal steel on “Carolina,” one could argue they’re looking to pick right back up where that aforementioned song left off. And in capturing the same intimacy off the spare keys on “Me and Judas” or the striking centerpoint of “Middle of a Heart” with its bone deep richness in general, there’s that same general feeling of heartfelt wit that comes alive just on presentation alone.
But if you’re familiar with their work, you know it always circles back around to the writing, notably their strong sense of compassion and empathy informed by their upbringing and own personal experiences. It’s very much still a backbone of this project, particularly in the storytelling focus and eye for detail that makes every track feel lived-in … even somehow the tracks told from people who might come across as potential adversaries. Yeah therein lies the hard-to-confront reality of this project, a portrait of southern culture that’s neither a love letter to it nor a condemnation of it – moreso just the reality of how history has been warped and retold, often for the worst. It reminded me a lot of both American Aquarium’s Lamentations and Emily Scott Robinson’s American Siren, particularly in the conversations surrounding faith and religion, and how everyone finds their own strand of it – either for themselves or to preach to others, sometimes for better but often for worse. It’s why, even though they’re not framed with this intention, it’s the songs that circle back around to family that have such a heartbreaking potency to them. Take “Painkillers & Magic,” where the overall languid, tasteful acoustic groove works with an overall lack of malice, even when it’s a song about family members preaching toward Adeem with homophobia coated through religious or spiritual salvation, or how the underlying hypocrisy of it always seems to grant never-ending salvation and forgiveness only to those deemed worthy of it, which is how Adeem finds wisdom through The Johnny Cash Show to walk their own line on “Baptized in Well Spirits.”
And between the focus of a father’s alcoholism and a mother’s strongly conservative religious bent also informing the deep-seated hatred toward people like Adeem on that song, again, judgment isn’t their own weapon of choice used to convert their version of non-believers. Hell, their strong sense of empathy alone means they’re always looking beyond the individual person and more toward the history and culture that’s informed them, always keeping hope alive that hatred and bigotry need not come to define whole person and that anyone can work against it with perspective gained, particularly if they’re willing to learn and grow from it. It’s why “Carolina” is as much a beautiful tribute to their parents and the love that gave way to Adeem themselves as it is an acknowledgment of the generational trauma and depression that got passed down and will only change when ready to break that chain. And it’s what makes closing track “My America” a very tricky song to confront, a spare acoustic ballad told … not so much by someone with any strong sense of malice or hatred in their hearts, maybe so much as a confusion for what they don’t understand, and a fear for a changing world they’ve never once had to confront, even if the voices and perspectives of those rising up have always been there.
And that’s the hard pill to swallow with this album regardless of who you are – the lessons learned here are simply what you make of them; Adeem the Artist is just sketching reality, both in general and for themselves. And it’s easy to stand on a pulpit and preach to be on the right side of any of it – hell, they poke fun of that on “Rednecks, Unread Hicks” – but in general it takes a long, slow journey of empathy and understanding, of “trying to understand perspectives I can’t relate to,” as they say on “Heritage of Arrogance.” And even then, they’re just such great storytellers, that they can even make the familiar have the sort of lived-in sincerity that’s rung hollow by other artists more adamant in their authenticity. It’s why I still love “Middle of a Heart,” told from the perspective of an all-American male individual who grows up with guns, gets married, and goes off to war, because Adeem the Artist is willing to dig into the untold effects it carries on the human psyche: a desire to make family proud and a heart pounding fear of letting them down and having to face the shame, even here, when early on it’s established how much of a weight there is behind taking another life of any kind, which circles back around to its heartbreaking ending I dare not spoil.
And it’s that same lack of a silver lining that colors so much of what I love about “Books & Records,” a simple tale of a couple forced to sell their personal belongings to make ends meet, where the turnaround of the hook isn’t to rely on a familiar “we’re poor but rich in love” mentality. No, they leave it off at, “We’ve been selling off our books and records, but we’re going to buy them back someday,” almost told through gritted teeth, either out of desperation or in vain, depending on how you want to look at it.
Really too, to juxtapose tracks like those with more straightforward moments of levity in the sardonic, yet still politically weighty, rockabilly-esque “Run This Town” or “Going to Hell” says a lot about how many hats this album can wear effectively … even if sometimes the lack of overall sharper focus can work slightly against it. My nitpicks here are minor, but I do think “Going to Hell” – great one-liner involving Robert Johnson aside – can feel a bit off-putting coming just after “Middle of a Heart” and establishes a jarring tonal dissonance. And beyond the punk vibe somewhat falling flat in the buzzy guitar tones of “Heritage of Arrogance,” it is the one track here that feels more general in perspective as a protest song and distanced from Adeem the Artist’s more typical storytelling perspective that anchors their finest work.
But rreally, that’s about it in that regard. This is just the sort of project that delivers on the promise of its predecessor, simply offering the needed expansion in sound and scope to truly unlock. And despite the weighty focus informing its themes and concepts, it’s an accessible listen for all … provided they’re actually willing to listen to stories that can fit within their own perspectives and beyond them. If so, there’s little else this year that’s as legitimately funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, romantic, passionate, or powerful as White Trash Revelry, and it snuck in at just the right time.
- Favorite tracks: “Middle of a Heart,” “Books & Records,” “Carolina,” “Me and Judas,” “Painkillers & Magic,” “Baptized in Well Spirits,” “Rednecks, Unread Hicks”
- Least favorite track: “Heritage of Arrogance”