The disc’s called Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. The first song – from which the title is taken – is called “Cry.” So no one should approach Slaid Cleaves’ latest, his first recording since an all-covers collection in 2006, expecting fluffy party-pop.
There are pleasures to be found here, to be sure. But they’re the quiet, subdued pleasures of startling imagery, and being hit with truths so hard and real they hurt in a good way.
“Cry,” is indeed a downer of epic proportions. Yet somehow it’s hauntingly beautiful, its bleak and unrelenting darkness contrasted by Cleaves’ gruff but strangely boyish vocals. And “Hard To Believe,” a hardscrabble tale of the lost and the lonely in Milwaukee during the holidays, is about as far from seasonal cheer as possible. But again, Cleaves weaves a mesmerizing spell through lines as hard-edged as a winter wind.
“Beyond Love” is a clear-eyed and unflinchingly honest rumination on the unfolding on a relationship that may or may not endure, with the only certainty a grey and featureless future. Its gently quirky rhythm is accented by subtle strains of Steven Foley’s English horn. The bluegrass lament of “Green Mountains And Me” aches with the everyday pain of loss and loneliness felt by families and friends of the fallen, while Ray Bonneville’s “Run Jolee Run”, the only cover here, is a somber murder ballad with an eerie, southern gothic feel.
Depressed yet? There’s still “Dreams,” which wonders where said dreams go when they fade away (“You hung your hopes on a crooked nail …”), and “Black T-Shirt,” a scathing indictment of the unthinking bravado of the young (“Do you know what you put your mama through …”).
“Tumbleweed Stew” is a modern-day cowboy song with an irresistibly catchy chorus, but again the underlying feel is windswept loneliness and longing. “Twisting” tells the tale of a public hanging, Cleaves’ stark delivery and matter-of-fact observations calling into question our ability to turn even death into spectacle.
But “Beautiful Thing,” although dripping with scorn and sarcasm for the artifice and hypocrisy that steer society, ends with a surprisingly optimistic if tenuous declaration of faith in humanity. The disc’s theme, though, comes full circle with closer “Temporary,” which declares life’s pleasures just that – fleeting and subject to inevitable decay (“Live well and learn to die / Soon in the dust you’ll lie").
In lesser hands the whole project might well sink under what seems, on the surface, an unrelenting gloom. Thanks in no small part to Gurf Morlix’ atmospheric production, though – arrangements seem fraught with restless ghosts and prairie winds – the disc succeeds admirably. Somehow, one senses that despite the darkness of his subject matter, Cleaves never quite loses hope.
And that hope redeems the disc; Slaid isn’t a morose whiner, he’s a sharp observer with an unerring eye for telling detail and lines as hard-edged as diamonds. And just as diamonds emerge from the impenetrable blackness of coal, Cleave’s songs, shining with the beauty of truth and honesty, emerge as things precious, to be savored and treasured.
Just don’t expect to dance much …