The Steeldrivers‘ latest album continues the band’s tradition of elegantly played, midtempo bluegrass with traditional flavors and superb songwriting. A high-spirited lilt contrasts with downbeat lyrics in the leadoff track, “Long Way Down,” with its crisp vocal harmonies. But frustration and cynicism are the watchwords of the whole disc, the songs intensely emotional, often sad and even bitter. Gary Nichols’s lead vocals carry quite a sting, and the absence of prominent female harmony vocals – they’re there at times, but muted and subtle in the mix – darkens the sound too, compared with the band’s previous album Hammer Down.
Yet spirited musicianship and fine writing make these sad songs cathartic rather than depressing. The warm country waltz “Ashes of Yesterday” sounds like it could have come out of the Hank Williams catalogue, heartbreak division. The minor-key “The Day Before Temptation” feels positively blue, but with a poetic beauty to the music: “When the thrill is gone you’ll be left out in the rain,” it declares; there’s no way to go back to the happy days in the Garden of Eden.
“Here She Goes,” an exquisite little pearl of a song about a relationship gone bad, is just plain sad. “Hangin’ Around” is about love and devotion, but with a resigned tinge, the singer comparing himself to “that old shirt in the closet you won’t ever throw away.” The mix of dark lyrics and brightly conceived music persists throughout the album.
Even the instrumental “California Chainsaw” feels more thoughtful than bouncy. And if that’s not enough, there’s “Six Feet Away,” about (you guessed it) death. “Nobody knows the hour, nobody knows the way.” The peppy blues “Drinkin’ Alone” has a danceable beat, for a change, but down-in-the-dumps lyrics too.
Also bluesy is the uptempo country-blues novelty tune “Too Much.” The narrator catalogues society’s ills and declares “I don’t worry ’bout it too much.” But with the bite in Nichols’s tone, and all the sturm und drang of the rest of the songs, I’m not convinced. The Muscle Shoals Recordings closes with a beautiful Civil War memorial called “River Runs Red.” It’s the most iconically characteristic of the theme and spirit of the whole album: art can turn even the most tragic possible subject matter into beauty.