On his artful new concept album Queen of the West, Bob Bradshaw takes the strong character-driven songwriting of his 2017 American Echoes a step deeper. The songs on the new disc revolve around the title character, a mythical construct who serves as muse, outlaw ideal, and icon of the American West. The Irish-born, Boston-based Bradshaw has thoroughly absorbed the tropes of American roots-rock and applied his own emerald imagination to make them blossom anew.
As the tracks progress, the mystical Queen of the title song morphs into an alienated movie star, a country music singer, and a woman with a sick child pleading with the saints for help (“Role of a Lifetime,” “Ruby Black”). When the saints respond (“1-800-SOSAINT”) it’s with irony rather than mercy, with mournful results (“Child”) that climax in the exquisite, gorgeously arranged “The Wearing of the Black” – which also transports us to Ireland.
A faintly prog-rock and Bowie-esque vibe overtakes “High Horse,” a sparse poem that builds to an eerie instrumental rave-up. Ruby Black, the singer who performed as the Queen of the West, returns in the third person, and much reduced, in “Story Goes,” a song that reminds me of John Hiatt’s country mode. And in the gentle southwestern honky-tonk of “Albuquerque,” another top track on an album with many highlights, we meet again the man whose life she changed forever. “I know the mystery of that woman / It called to me forever / It calls to me though never / does she need to make a sound.”
There’s no letup as these 13 songs roll by. The fractured sweep of the story reminds me a little of Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart with its timeless Perdita Durango character. The songwriting has a persistent sting even when the music is in a mellow mode.
The last few songs depict a dissipating relationship (“you’re there but you’re not there”) leading to a hopeful, if low-probability, Narnia-like escape to an East as mythical as the Queen herself. Once there, the narrator – Ruby’s (or the Queen’s) estranged lover – finds war and fleeing refugees. He’s come full circle, sort of, in reflecting the lonely searcher of the opening title track who’ll have “no rest / Until you find the / Queen of the West.”
Queen of the West is a through-conceived album of beautifully composed songs, written by Bradshaw with a few collaborators, richly arranged, played with taste and skill, and unusually deep and memorable. It’s available Sept. 27, 2019. Pre-order now.