William Elliott Whitmore is a corn fed Iowa boy who must have swallowed gravel since childhood to achieve his wizened, guttural croak of a voice. In listening to Animals in the Dark, Whitmore’s latest album, you’d be hard pressed to guess that the voice belongs with a white man in the prime of his life, and that’s not all which sets Whitmore apart from the pack.
Animals in the Dark is essentially a roots album. It has a banjo, slide guitar, Whitmore’s voice, and a peck of attitude. The attitude transcends the genre on “Mutiny” specifically. It’s not a protest song so much as an angry open letter to the last presidential administration. When Whitmore sings, “Let the motherfucker burn,” he clearly means it. No euphemisms. No compromise. He calls it like he sees it. In fact, Whitmore probably has more in common with hardcore punk rock of the late 80s than current Americana music. The songwriting is no nonsense and no holds barred. As Whitmore says, “Look at the guys who are screwing us right now compared to the guys who were in power screwing people 2,000 years ago in ancient Europe.” To him, there’s little difference.
A clear line between Whitmore and other angry musicians is that Whitmore sings about politics without being political. He’s not interested in right or left, but right and wrong, love and death, cigarettes and beer. He says so on “Hell or High Water”. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Drink your glasses to the bottom.” He sings songs about carrying on and making the best of it. And carrying on is universal. Not many men make it through life without a bad year – or for that matter a bad decade. Sometimes you just need a song to get you through to tomorrow. It seems that Whitmore is most interested in creating such songs for such people.
When listening to Whitmore, if you close your eyes you see a rundown bar with one microphone and chicken wire across the wooden box that doubles as a stage. The beer on tap is PBR, and the parking lot out front is gravel. Flannel is on display throughout the crowd. And if Whitmore were singing into that microphone it might as well be the Ryman.
It’s his credibility, the fact that he was raised on a farm in the middle of America, which allows him to sing songs like “There’s Hope for You” without sounding clichéd. Apparently hope grows in that part of the US. They care for it, harvest it, and ship it off to the coasts. Whitmore can call down curses on the tricksters and shysters without irony and without despondency because he buys into his message with fervor. It’s infectious.
That’s precisely why Animals in the Dark is worth a listen. It’s an album about what's wrong (FYI – the animals in the dark are dishonest men of power) tempered with encouragement for the common man, and as such, is drawing comparisons to Springsteen’s Nebraska that may just be credible. (Though Animals in the Dark lacks the bleakness of Nebraska.) Making an audience believe his brand of hope is the hard part, but William Elliott Whitmore is clearly up to the challenge. If a man can work eight hours, come home, listen to Animals in the Dark, and feel a little bit better about his predicament, Whitmore has done his job well. It helps knowing the other guy is just as pissed off.
Animals in the Dark release date: February 17th.