Malcolm Holcombe growls from the depths, raw as ever on his enigmatic new album Come Hell or High Water. Pearly harmony vocals from Iris Dement only cement the darkness on these 13 tracks of elemental, bluesy Americana.
Sociopolitical commentary bubbles up out of Holcombe’s gentle acoustic guitar and rootsy arrangements on some tracks. “Black Bitter Moon” castigates war-makers for tearing up families: “shove off to the ocean fly up to the sky / ain’t a drop o’ lick o’ sense in washington’s mind / rocks in the road rock n’ roll in my head / dirty socks in my closet bad luck up ahead.” In “The New Damnation Alley” he indicts the “billionaire barbarians” and “limousine liars” going all the way back to the Atlantic slave trade.
There’s mercy in the world his characters drift through, but also a core of futility, aging, and longing. Few have gotten so much dusty mileage out of a monstrously overused phrase than Holcombe does in the song bitingly titled “It Is What It Is.” The narrator of “Left Alone” states baldly, “i cuss and pray at the world and the blues…still able to work but i just can’t feel.”
Yet the music, so sincere and warm-blooded, belies such numb sentiments, and so does the imagery of many of the other lyrics. Like many of the characters, the lyrics often scatter to the winds in a quest for meaning. Melody dissolves into gravelly mutterings. Misspellings muck up the printed words as if transcribed from misheard mumbles by a dumb machine. Yet through it all courses a stream of what feels like utter honesty.
At times Holcombe even touches the happier, folksy sensibility of John Prine (a reference also suggested by Dement’s presence). Strokes of smiling tunefulness brighten songs like “I Don’t Wanna Disappear” and “Gone by the Ol’ Sunrise.” And while the easygoing “Merry Christmas” will never become a holiday classic, with its images of poverty and drunkenness, Holcombe sounds like his tongue is in his cheek even as he sings “go to church when ya go / go to hell if ya don’t / merry christmas.”
Many of the images evoke old times: Brylcreem and Aqua Velva, a black and white TV, a ’64 Ford, a photo of “JFK on the stickhouse mantle.” But this kind of gutsy music never feels dated. As a songwriter, Holcombe’s vision is of a world where history is always present and the evils of the past are not really of the past at all.
Yes, some of the songs have a grim flavor: the distant minor-key thunder of “October Mornin'”; the drug addicts of “Legal Tender”; “The New Damnation Alley.” Yet remarkably – and this is a testament to the power of music – the album leaves me with an overall warm feeling. It comes, more than anything else, from those moments, as in “The Old North Side,” when the songs fuse sad or painful images with inspiring melodies and energizing chordal tension. The album sports important contributions from Jared Tyler, especially his excellent dobro parts, and from Dement and Greg Brown, who also contributes vocals. But Malcolm Holcombe’s rough, squinting vision forms its essence, and an achingly candid essence it is.
Pre-order Malcolm Holcombe’s Come Hell or High Water here.