MISERY WITHOUT COMPANY: Tyler Childers—Purgatory (2017)

614ah2b-h1nl-_sy355_Michael Strait

I’m a man who grew up on rock music, where lyrics tend not to matter unless they’re written by Morrissey or Bruce Springsteen, so reviewing mostly-lyrical music like hip-hop or country can be a bit of a foreign experience for me. There’s a reason the first hip-hop act I chose to review in full was UGK, one of the more musically-focused rap groups of the nineties. This burgeoning series here is the first time I’ve ever really had to review consistently lyric-focused albums, and it presents me with a challenge I’m not sure how to face. So I’ll be trying a different tack from now on: when I need to quote and analyse a full lyrical passage, as if it were an excerpt from a poem or a novel, I will. I’ve been allergic to that up until now, because I’ve internalized the rock ethos and have long held the prejudice that to focus on reviewing lyrics is to indicate that one is too stupid to understand music, but I’m as ready to let go of that now as I’ll ever be. Tyler Childers, see, is simply such a good lyricist that I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the temptation to present and analyze his lyrics. He deserves it, and so do you.

That’s not to say the lyrics are his only appeal, of course. His voice – the first thing I tend to notice about country singers – is a complex instrument, blessed with a truly gorgeous tone and constantly quavering with vulnerability that doesn’t sound at all forced, allowing room for depth of sensuality difficult to come by in other singers. He can convey a very wide range of deeply-felt emotions with tremendous aplomb, and he always sounds absolutely lovely doing it. He’s got a real talent for melodic songwriting, too, as is immediately evident from the first track. After that lovely little fiddle intro, he launches into a vocal melody that accurately captures the exact mix of self-directed anger, wry self-effacing humor and general hopeless inevitability he’s going for with the lyrics, starting off low and quiet before quickly building into a brief crescendo before falling back into meek ennui.

And those lyrics are truly something Bear with me, ‘cos this song demands a lot of words, so this is gonna take a while. Let’s dive into the first verse for a little bit:

I only had a couple drinks last night
And few good hits from an antler pipe
And I must admit, I had a few white lines
And I don’t know what all happened

I woke up in the noon time light
With a poundin’ head, shiner on my eye
And I don’t know how and I don’t why
But it feels like fierce abandon

This is such a well-constructed verse that it almost seems too obvious to peel apart, but writing this good always deserves the honor. Look at the way he starts off, building up those clichés of addiction and abuse until their inadequacy becomes obvious and he just has to admit that he’s just lost control of the situation. Look at that beautiful resolution at the end, where he refrains from framing his addictions as a disease or an assailant and focuses instead on blaming himself, suffering the humiliation of admitting to himself that he does it because some part of him enjoys it. In particular, the words he uses draw my attention – “fierce abandon”, he says, characterising his urges as being ultimately drawn from a deep desire to reject social norms, abandon responsibilities and embrace a rawness anathema to well-adjusted life as an adult. In the first half, he descends into an uncontrolled pit of abuse; in the second half, he comes to the realization that he does, on some level, have some control, and that he is inflicting this misery upon himself. Just eight lines, and we’ve already got a nice, fulsome picture of the basics underpinning this man’s character. That gives him a nice base to work from as he transitions into the chorus, which add a beautiful metaphor to fill out the character. “Ah, working on a buildin’ out’a hand-hewn brimstone/ Workin’ on a buildin’ and I’m buildin’ on it all alone”, he sings, and it’s a couplet packed with complex significance. He’s trying to make an adult life for himself, but all he has to hand are his destructive urges, and with nobody there to share his life with the job is so much more difficult. All he has are his sins, and he knows one can’t build a life out of those.

The second verse is, arguably, even better. Let’s have a gander:

Pay no mind to the words I say
Cause they ain’t no count anyway
I been ramblin’ around and led astray
By the paths that I been choosin’

Cuttin’ paths like a forest fire
Pupils wider than backhoe tires
Throwin’ my money on a funeral pyre
But it sure feels good abusin’

First off, you have that opening joke, which disguises genuine self-loathing under the thin sheen of wry self-critical southern humor that everyone who’s lived there for any amount of time will recognise right away. That, though, is mostly just a setup for the amazing punny wordplay on the word “ramblin'”, where the surrounding context means he manages to convey both meanings of the word at the same time, almost as if he’s using them as metaphors for each other in order to describe his life. Then you have that amazingly significant line, “Cuttin’ paths like a forest fire”, which rivals Hemingway in its efficiency. The idea of finding your own path through life is an old rhetorical cliché, but here Tyler twists it, removing it from its normally benign context and framing it dangerously, quickly capturing both the lack of control he has over the situation (since, after all, men can conjure no force capable of truly controlling a forest fire) and the indiscriminate nature of the harm he sees himself as inflicting on those around him. He keeps up the fire theme with “Throwin’ my money on a funeral pyre”, which is as obvious and excellent a metaphor as one might ever find, requiring no explanation. The third verse isn’t quite so dense, but it’s still very important, tying it all back to reality with a necessary reminder that the character he is describing isn’t at all fictional: “Damn good gig, good damn crowd/ Good God, for cryin’ out loud/ Coming off stage I was mighty proud/ Then I don’t know what all happened”. This is him, his life, and he’s painting a tragically compelling picture of it.

A masterpiece, if you ask me. And it’s not the only one on the album, though it is the best. “Feathered Indians” has a similarly beautiful melody, oozing vulnerability and regret as lightly-plucked guitars and banjos surround him, fiddles sliding all over him and melding with the electric slide guitar into a gorgeous, sweeping portrait of the landscapes he describes. For the most part, the lyrics of this song are just beautifully rich imagery in service of an honest expression of love – “I’d go runnin’ through the thicket/ I’d go careless through the thorns/ Just to hold her for a minute/ Though it’d leave me wanting more” – but there’s more here, too, including a clever extended metaphor about the titular feathered indians that I wouldn’t have noticed if not for the genius page explaining the significance of his belt buckle and the Spirits he’s smoking. Then, of course, there’s the simple eloquence of his naked regret: “If I’d known she was religious/ Then I wouldn’t have came stoned/ To the house of such an angel/ Too fucked up to get back home”. Metaphors are great, but sometimes you really just don’t need ’em. Sometimes, the truth alone packs enough of a punch.

Regret, as with much country, is a persistent feature of this album. It pops up again on the next track, “Tattoo”, which is replete with yet more beautifully vivid imagery: “Flint strikes out to pierce the dark/ Cause a flame from just one spark/ Fill the room with smoke so harsh/ She exhales a memory”. Musically, the song is nice in a way that isn’t vastly memorable, though I do like how the majority of the instrumentation waits until the first chorus to kick in, and it’s a neat trick how the chorus is only two lines long but somehow never feels insubstantial. Really, my favourite thing about it is that it’s a song about regret over a long-dead relationship sung from the perspective of his ex, which is a stunningly mature step I don’t think I’ve seen an artist take before. It’s not a caricature, either – he’s fully understanding and carries not an ounce of bitterness in his portrayal of her, even if there is some small existential despair in his knowledge that the sum of their past relationship is now confined to “A haunted tale for someone else/ A little bit about herself”. Still, it’s rare to find an artist this willing to make themselves the extra in their own story.

This same regret bleeds into fear on the title track, a fairly fast-paced bluegrass song with lots of flaming banjos and delighted fiddles. It all serves to underscore the mortal terror that makes up the song’s subject matter, with the fast instrumentation sounding, after a while, like the sound of a life barreling inevitably towards the grave and – more pertinently – towards judgement. “When I’s a boy/ I’d drink and love and smoke and snort my fill/ But all the while/ I kept in mind the Lord’s redeeming grace”, he pleads, lamely trying to salvage some righteousness from the sins he sees overwhelming his life and trying every manner of trick to convince himself he won’t end up in the brimstone. “Catholic girl, pray for me/ You’re my only hope for Heaven”, he begs, hedging his bets in a rather charmingly simplistic interpretation of pascal’s wager.

I’m gonna pause for a second: I’ve always been an atheist, so the fear of eternity spent in the torturing flames is one of those fears I’ve never been able to relate to (I substitute with fear of The Void, though, so it’s all okay in the end). But the culture of much of the less fortunate side of the States is deeply rooted in Christianity, and it motivates a lot of really fascinating existential music. Future’s “Monster”, Hank III’s “Straight to Hell”, Bruce’s “Nebraska” – all have very Christian themes of sin, failure, and the certainty of a fate worse than death at the end of the line. I can’t imagine the terror such belief must induce, or the depth and extra dimensions it must add to the self-loathing one feels after every very human failure. This album is another to add to the list. “I know that Hell/ Is just as real as I am surely breathin’/ But I’ve heard tale/ Of a middle ground, I think will work for me”, says a desperate Tyler, angling as hard as he can for the temporary suffering of purgatory, knowing as he does that he has already sinned too much for anything more but hoping against hope that he hasn’t yet damned himself permanently to the eternal kind.

Christianity isn’t the only spiritual influence on this album, though. “Born Again” has some really lovely, reverby steel guitar in the chorus, sweeping and vast as the great stretches of time it concerns itself with lyrically. It’s a song about the cyclical, endless nature of life and death, tackled through the concept of reincarnation. If that sounds a bit ambitious for a simple ol’ country song then you needn’t worry, ‘cos Tyler has the good sense to frame it as a personal series of vignettes from the perspectives of animals, living out their lives and eventually dying. The masterstroke is that he frames each death as being caused by another being struggling to keep their own family alive; he casts no useless moral opprobrium on, say, the fox who takes the hen to feed her family, but he also doesn’t celebrate it, and the masterful melodic downturn in the chorus serves as a reminder that the cyclical, inevitable nature of death makes it no easier to cope with. Death is inflicted to stave off death, but Tyler never lets us forget that all respite is temporary. “I took one in the boiler room/ To put food on the table of a dying breed of man”, he says as cattle, and this is the sort of spiritual fear I can totally understand. The great cycle of life and death is a difficult topic to write about effectively, so Tyler deserves all the more praise for pulling it off. It takes a master to manage something like this.

Nature is a topic that’s clearly close to him, actually, because he returns to it on “Universal Sound”, another song tackling a topic that’s difficult to handle without coming across as corny. Tyler’s no cornball, though, and the arena rock delay effect on the guitar is deployed to uncharacteristic use as the starry backdrop for a portrait of blessed loneliness in the middle of the empty American wilderness. The melody is, once again, gorgeous, and the lyrics keep pace nicely. Observe:

I’ve been up on the mountain
And I’ve seen his wondrous grace
I’ve sat there on a barstool and I’ve looked him in the face
He seemed a little haggard, but it did not slow him down
He was hummin’ to the neon of the universal sound

Even I know enough about the bible to recognise the reference here. It’s a nice blend of traditional biblical imagery with traditional down-on-one’s-luck country imagery, and a pleasant slice of optimism in the face of all the misery one can find elsewhere on this record. It takes a lot of talent to turn the phrase “the universal sound” into anything more than just a hippie faux-aphorism, but Tyler manages it.

Tyler’s also no stranger to the art of non-autobiographical storytelling, and he indulges in a couple of classically country moments of it here. There’s “Banded Clovis”, one of many country murder ballads that’s secretly about more than just the brutality. This one is mostly about poverty and the opioid crisis, starring a dirt-poor man who goes digging for old native artifacts with his friend and then murders him when he finds some in order to keep all the money for himself. “A clovis like that is a hard point to find/ Makes pills swift to come by with a good chunk of change”, he says triumphantly, though the triumph is a mere temporary comfort before the isolation of the cell. The song is near-nonexistent, musically, but the story’s compelling and the underlying themes deeply relevant, so there’s still plenty to like.

The other such song, meanwhile, is almost the complete opposite. “Whitehouse Road” is possibly the most explicitly musical song on the album, and one of few I think it’s really possible to appreciate (though not FULLY appreciate) without paying attention to the lyrics. He leaves a lot of empty space between his lines in the verses, allowing the instrumentation to fill them with its steady, subtly driving rhythm and its minimal, expertly-applied guitar slides. This emptiness and spaciousness transitions into a faster, more urgent chorus, rendered cathartic and powerful by sheer force of contrast. Simple juxtaposition is underrated as a musical force, and it does a lot to make this song powerful. I get an urge to get up out of my chair and move to this song, even if not necessarily in a musical way; this is music for walking somewhere with a purpose, or driving cross-country at speed. Not bad for a song that is, by any normal standard, quite slow and quiet.

As for the lyrics, well, there’s a line in the chorus that I feel is probably the single most important line on the album, and one of those lines that doubles as an expression of a wider cultural moment. “Get me higher than the grocery bill”, he croons, capturing the essence of not only the rural drug epidemic that has made so many headlines recently, but also the general millennial mindset as a whole, efficiently expressing the basic life philosophy of many of my closest friends and summarizing the joke behind many a viral tweet. The song is, in many ways, a fantasy – about leaving all consequences behind as one embraces the sin that follows Tyler like a shadow on this album, rejecting social norms entirely in the pursuit of, indeed, fierce abandon – but it’s a fantasy rooted deeply in the lived reality of a generation of Americans, and that’s what makes it so powerful. “We been sniffing that co-caine/ Ain’t nothin’ better when the wind cuts cold/ Lord, it’s a mighty hard livin’/ But a damn good feelin’ to run these roads”, he sings in the chorus, emphasising the drug so as to properly convey its severity without ever actually lyrically condemning it. Tyler, in this song, is the quintessential rap character, transposed from the urban setting to the rural; he’s a gangster with “women up and down this creek”, plenty of enemies, a nocturnal lifestyle and a drug addiction, and much like that very same rap character, he’s a fantasy rooted in a desire to escape the grinding endlessness of poverty. It’s a hard living, but at least it’s got a purpose. Can the same be said for the punch-clock monotony of reality?

There is, at least, one other route Tyler offers out of the monotony, and that – of course – is genuine love. “Honky Tonk Flame” concerns this, but it’s the weakest song here so I won’t talk about it much except to mention the pretty fun Sonic Youth-esque noisy countrypocalyptic breakdown that happens after most of the lyrics are done, with all the instruments falling in on themselves in a rather glorious gentle cacophony that comes out of nowhere and fairly redeems a song that otherwise peaks at merely good. “Lady May”, the closer, is the better song on the subject, devoid of all instruments but the acoustic guitar and his lovely voice. It’s simple enough that there’s not all that much to say about it, but it is one of the most prettily-written love songs I’ve heard in a long while. Tyler’s talent for vivid scene-setting really comes out in the first verse:

I’m a stone’s throw from the mill
And I’m a good walk to the river
When my workin’ day is over
We’ll go swim our cares away
Put your toes down in the water
And a smile across your face
And tell me that you love me
Lovely Lady May

The little things do it; he’s far from the river, but he doesn’t hesitate to go there with her anyway, knowing that sometimes it’s worth expending effort to find a perfect moment in isolation with one you love. If nothing else makes the working life worthwhile, then a memory like that may well be. “I’ve seen my share of trouble/ And I’ve held my weight in shame/ But I’m baptized in your name/ Lovely Lady May”, he sings contentedly, reflecting on all the flaws he’s shown us so openly across the rest of the album and finally basking in a reason good enough to cast them aside. Love songs mean a great deal more when that love is the only consistently positive emotion one can find on an album. Much as with the Sarah Shook album I reviewed before this, it’s clear that a deep, genuine commitment to another person is the one surefire way Tyler knows he can avoid the demons that await him in his lonelier moments, so he values it very deeply indeed.

Gee… that ended up being long. But, hey, this album deserves the effort. This is the dawn of a really fantastic lyricist, and one who totally deserves your time. If you take nothing else from my reviews, take this: listen to Tyler Childers. He’s a real, uncommon talent, and in a brighter world than this one he’d be a superstar. Maybe he will be in time, but regardless, I’m gonna keep listening to this album. It’s an underrated little masterpiece, and in an era where popular country has largely abdicated its role as the genuine cultural expression of the American rural working class it highlights just how important it is to keep supporting the good stuff. Get this stuff in your library, man. He’s worth it, and so are you.

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MISERY WITHOUT COMPANY: Sarah Shook and the Disarmers—Sidelong (2015)

a3879543519_10Michael Strait

I’m gonna get this right out of the way: if what bothers you about country music is that it’s whiny, this album won’t do much to swing you. But then again, if that’s your problem with country music, fuck you! Misery is one of the great topics of popular music, and the pages of history are littered with miserablist geniuses I’m willing to bet most of y’all just absolutely adore. If you’re into Cobain, Yorke, Morrissey, Reznor, Staley, Curtis, Waters or any of the countless other depressed rock heroes I’ve forgotten to mention, then you should have no problem whatsoever with Sarah Shook here. And while I’m not about to start officiating any sort of suffering olympics, I will say that Shook’s got a lot more to whine about here than Morrissey ever did.

There are, I think, two very important anchors on this record, and the first is the opener. “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'” is a gorgeous, fast-paced ballad, centered around a very pretty jangly guitar and slide-whistling steel guitars, and at first glance it appears to be just another (very good) country ballad about missing an absent lover. Listen closer, though, and you hear an edge of terror in the lyrics, helped along by that trademark harsh warble in her voice. “I’ve got the fires burnin’ way down low/ Oh, come home to me”, she begs desperately, and you can tell that this is more than just mindless submissive devotion. “Oh, I move the days along, workin’ my fingers to the bone”, she laments, hinting at just how much is at stake in this poverty-stricken world, but it’s only on the following songs that the gravity of this relationship really becomes clear.

Sarah Shook, you see, is a woman who has very much experienced enough love to know how pain feels, and she’s witnessed enough dysfunctional relationships and painful collapses to know the deep, profound importance of holding onto something good while she’s got it. She takes some pleasure in excoriating a deadbeat boyfriend on “The Nail”, and the music plays along with that stomping beat and the satisfyingly percussive transition into the chorus, but there’s no real catharsis – just a list of unfixable grievances, piling up on each other as the two of them gather spite and grow further distant from each other. “Well I ain’t your last and you ain’t my first/ Can’t decide which fact is worse”, she sings, landing somewhere between sardonic and despondent as she contemplates the endlessness of this cycle of misery. The end is near, she knows, but she can’t finish it yet, and all there is to do in the meantime is channel her energy into loathing.

She fixates on his drunkenness – “You’re never, ever home and when you are/ What was once a happy home becomes a bar” – before descending into it herself on the very next song, seeking refuge from his damage in the very architect of their misery. She’s fully aware of the futility – “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill/ But I just keep thinkin’ surely the whiskey will” – but she has no answer; she just keeps drinking, trying to drown misery under misery. The melody she sings is as mournful as it gets, and the angry guitar solos bring no relief from the despair. This is music about personal failure, and the pain goes deep.

The only break she takes from the intimate, personal miseries that define the album as a whole is the song “No Name”, a rough, comparatively fast-paced rockish tour through the wider misery that defines American history. “I’ve killed more living souls than the Devil can claim/ And I’ll kill a thousand more because I have no name”, she sings, rugged and forceful; I’ve yet to work out exactly what it is she’s describing, but I know it sounds entirely fitting for a nation with roots as bloody as this one. Elsewhere, though, it’s all part of the same tapestry: decaying, dying relationships segue into endless drinking, which in turn metamorphose inevitably into fierce, vicious self-loathing. “Dwight Yoakam” manages to fuse all three into a tragic swirl of misery, as she tries vainly to drown all the insecurities bubbling up inside her at the collapse of her latest relationship. “He don’t walk around like he’s broken/ And he siiiings just like Dwight Yoooaakam“, she sobs, drawing that last line into a desperate plea to nobody in particular as she describes her erstwhile girlfriend’s new flame, trying to cope with the fact that her very depression has robbed her of the one thing that made it bearable. So she turns, again, to the drink, digging the hole deeper and spiralling down into the void.

Some of the most deeply depressing songs I’ve ever heard reside on the second half of this record, to the point where I sometimes feel a little weirdly voyeuristic about enjoying them. “Misery Without Company” is as black a portrait of hopelessness as you’ll ever find in any genre, rolling pure existential despair at the ravages of fate into the helplessness of substance addiction and creating a postcard from hell itself. “This old world ain’t been kind to me/ And no matter how I try I can’t seem to change my stars”, she reflects, showcasing her talent for rueful poetic flair before descending into that tragic denial we all recognise and fear: “I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ But for now, the only thing keepin’ my chin up is this bottle.” The blackened melody and the wizened cracks in her voice all contribute to the general fog, and any semblance of a light at the end disappears. This blackness is everlasting, and those desperate wails in the final iteration of the chorus seem destined to echo into the emptiness forever, drawing no relief.

The three-song stretch from “Solitary Confinement” onwards is a particularly hellish journey. What begins as an attempt to recover from the particularly cutting pain of being cast aside like a toy – complete with a particularly depressing, bleakly catchy melodic downturn in the chorus, as she finally, inevitably returns to the bottle she can never escape – turns, on “Nothin’ Feels Right but Doin’ Wrong”, into an uncontrollable descent into a horrid routine in which all emotions become dissatisfying except the cheap thrills of sin and self-degradation, until eventually even they become so regular and predictable that she loses all capacity for real feeling. This all comes to a head on “Fuck Up”, which may very possibly be the most total slice of absolute misery and despair in my entire music library. “I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I drink myself to death/ I’ve got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath”, she sings forlornly, by now buried so far in the blackness that she can’t imagine light. Musically, the song is a fairly standard downbeat country ballad, but her utterly broken vocals and hopelessly despairing lyrics place it in among the bleakest things I’ve ever heard. “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up/ God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck ups”, she spits bitterly, rolling self-loathing and despair at the fickleness of fate into a concentrated beam of blackened misery.

This is what makes the other anchor on this record so important. The closer, “Road That Leads To You”, is one of only two expressions of genuine love on the album, and forms a very necessary bookend with “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'”, combining to light a candle in the impossible blackness and provide a ray of flickering hope. She doesn’t go into much detail about her lover, but she doesn’t need to – at this point, the fact that the love is real and purposeful is all it needs. And it’s at this point that the opening song really starts to make sense, and you really start to understand what it means.

She needs her lover to return from the north country, and she needs it because she knows the monsters that await her in the dark when she’s alone. She needs them to return, because she needs the relationship to remain real and genuine – because she knows what happens when it ends, and she deeply dreads what happens when it ends badly. She keeps the fires burnin’ low, not for her lover, but for her -because she there is nothing in the universe she needs more than that hope, and there is nothing she will ever cling to harder than that desperate lifeline. She can feel the blackness gnawing at the edges, and it terrifies her. The bleak loneliness of the bottle is waiting to consume her if she lets go, and she knows how cold it gets in the deep. So she resolutely keeps the fires burning, doing what she can to stave off the despair. She knows it well enough to know that she can’t let it claim her again.

And if that ain’t country, well, boys, you can kiss my ass. – Hank Williams III