As much as I love the kind of labyrinthine puzzle box albums we talked about last week, if you know me at all you know my heart lies with the song.
Give me a catchy melody, some heartfelt and well-considered lyrics, and a solid structure and I’m in every time. I’m constantly on the lookout for songwriters who try to capture entire worlds in four or five minutes. Elvis Costello may be the best of them, but there are plenty of others – Aimee Mann, Neil Finn, Dan Wilson, the astonishing Paul Simon, along with the three I have on tap this week – who keep on finding new ways to marry words and music, telling stories and baring their souls.
Soul-baring is Ani DiFranco’s stock in trade, and a new Ani album is always cause for celebration. She’s giving us fewer of them these days – for the whole of the ‘90s, it was a given that there would be a new DiFranco record each year, culminating in 1999, during which she released three of them. Her twenty-first album, Binary, arrives after a three-year absence, although she has never stopped touring.
You grow up and you calm down, and this angry young folksinger has aged gracefully into a considered, textured songwriter. Albums like Binary just take longer to make than slapdash nearly-live documents like Imperfectly, and for my money, the deep, rich sound she conjures on this record is worth the wait. Binary finds DiFranco engaged with the world around her, preaching politics and feminism and letting her rage boil up more frequently than she has recently, and that also can only be a good thing. If there were ever a time for a strong female voice like DiFranco’s, that time is now.
The most direct song here is “Play God,” her feminist pro-choice anthem: “You get to run the world in your special way, you get much more, much more than your say, government, religion, it’s all just patriarchy, I must insist you leave this one thing to me…” It’s reminiscent of the old Ani – you can actually see her at 20-something, selling her cassettes out of her car and playing that guitar for all she’s worth, giving her older self a high-five. The only thing that separates it from the furious songs she used to write is the loping, jazzy groove, a staple of this record.
Mostly, though, DiFranco is here to talk about how to live together, how to build each other up without breaking under the strain of Trump’s America. “Alrighty,” amidst its arguments for a female God, is about remaining connected to our collective consciousness. “Terrifying Sight” is about looking around and not liking what she sees, buckling up for the difficult ride ahead. “Pacifist’s Lament” charts a nonviolent path forward, urging us to say we’re sorry and stop in the middle of our pitched battles. And closer “Delayed Gratification” is about teaching our children to live and act with empathy. “I vote in every election,” she sings. “Hopefully one day these kids are going to help us win.”
It’s an album with no easy answers, no quick fixes, and that’s fitting for someone whose years of engagement have given her perspective. I know this is a matter of debate among her fans, but she’s also become much better at wrangling these observations and ruminations into songs. Binary is a beautiful-sounding record, anchored by her longtime bassist Todd Sickafoose and her touring drummer Terence Higgins. They get DiFranco’s jazz-funk groove – to pinch one of her new song titles, they’re practically telepathic. They nimbly handle a tricky vibe like the “Spider,” and add punch to the one true love song here, “Even More.”
DiFranco jams here with some distinguished guests, including trumpeter Maceo Parker, pianist Ivan Neville and saxophonist Skerik. Justin Vernon pops up on “Zizzing,” but it’s violinist Jenny Scheinman who steals that show, and every track she’s on. Her solo on “Telepathic” is a highlight. Through it all, DiFranco, who has been self-producing her records forever, keeps everything focused. This is the work of a seasoned, experienced record-maker – it’s tight, colorful and exactly what it should be.
So yeah, a new DiFranco record is always cause for a parade through the town square. But one this good, this insightful and well-crafted, is even more welcome. She’s slowed down, but I hope she never stops. I’ll gladly wait three years for an album as good as Binary.
* * * * *
If you’re going to talk about songwriters, you have to talk about Nashville. And right now, one of the best songwriters in Nashville is a guy from Alabama.
Jason Isbell has been at it for a long time, first as a member of Drive-By Truckers for six years (during which he gave us gems like “Danko/Manuel”) and then as a solo artist. It took him until his fourth album, the phenomenal Southeastern, to gain the acclaim he has always deserved. That’s not finger-wagging – I didn’t really pay attention to Isbell until Southeastern either, much to my shame.
But when I finally explored his work, I found a songwriter able to collapse whole novels into three minutes. Isbell is part of a long tradition of storytellers, one that includes Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash and Tom Waits and Hank Williams. Isbell creates characters, then gets behind their eyes and brings us their lives in a few incisive lines. It’s a skill few possess, and even fewer can do as well as Isbell can.
In some ways, the success of Southeastern was a liability. In retrospect, Isbell’s follow-up, the ambitious Something More Than Free, strained under the weight of expectation. It felt like a record with something to prove, branching out in new directions just to show that it could. What I like best about The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s new record, is that it feels free of that weight. It’s a confident, low-stakes record that paradoxically shows off Isbell’s undeniable talents better than the all-over-the-place nature of its predecessor.
For the first time since 2011, Isbell shares top billing on this record with his band, the 400 Unit. As you might expect, that means The Nashville Sound rocks a little harder and feels a little more live, and that vibe fits these new songs perfectly. After the acoustic opener “Last of My Kind,” the band leaps into action on “Cumberland Gap,” a roaring rocker about dying slowly in a small town. Here’s one of several perfect verses: “I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say? I’m all that she has left, I’m with her every day. Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge, if you don’t sit facing the window you could be in any town…”
Good as the opening of this record is, there’s a stretch of songs in the middle that are as good as anything I’ve ever heard from Isbell. In “White Man’s World,” one of his best lyrics, he tackles his own privilege and responsibility as a white male American: “I’m a white man living on a white man’s street, got the bones of the red man under my feet,” he sings, and one verse later he finds himself “looking in a black man’s eyes, wishing I’d never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke…” He sums it up perfectly in the chorus: “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war.”
“Anxiety” gets more personal with one eye on the world situation, starting with a riff right out of prog-metal and ending up as a seven-minute ode to the immobilizing stress many of us feel every day. “It’s the weight of the world, but it’s nothing at all, I’m light as a prayer then I feel myself fall…” On the glorious “Hope the High Road,” he obliquely references the Trump election, repeating “there can’t be more of them than us” and offering his hand: “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know, but I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road.” And on the great closer “Something to Love,” he sings of hope to his daughter: “I don’t quite recognize the world you’ll call home, just find what makes you happy, girl, and do it ‘til you’re gone.”
But for my money, the best thing here is “If We Were Vampires,” which is an odd title for perhaps the best, most realistic love song Isbell has ever penned. It’s about how mortality makes every second with the ones you love precious: “Maybe time running out is a gift, I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift, give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind…” That last line links back to the chorus, in which Isbell is as frank as can be: “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone, maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day I’ll be gone, or one day you’ll be gone…” That he makes these sentiments beautiful, longing and haunting is a testament to his skill.
In fact, the whole of The Nashville Sound is a testament. Isbell sounds relaxed here, fully aware of his prodigious talent and comfortable using it. This is a songwriter at the height of his powers, making it all seem easy. Jason Isbell has been great for a long time, and he may be at his best on this record. It’s a thing of beauty.
* * * * *
Speaking of songwriters that have been plying their trade for a long time, here’s Matthew Sweet.
I first heard Sweet when all of you did: in 1991, when his third album Girlfriend took over the radio and MTV. A snarling power pop gem, Girlfriend yielded several hits (the title track most notable among them) and made Sweet a household name, at least for a few years. His follow-ups Altered Beast and 100% Fun were similarly acclaimed, and his run of records through the ‘90s, culminating in the wonderful In Reverse, are unimpeachable.
And then I’m not sure what happened. It would be difficult for me to say that anything he’s done since In Reverse matches up to that historic run through the flannel decade. I’ve enjoyed his subsequent records, especially Sunshine Lies, but I could hear him running out of gas. He seemed to save most of his exuberance for a series of covers albums he made with Susanna Hoffs, and while those were splendid, they didn’t do much for his reputation as a songwriter. The last of those came out in 2013, two years after the last original album he made, Modern Art.
So when Sweet offered a new record through Kickstarter, I jumped at it, even though I doubted it would be anything special. My doubts only grew as the album took years beyond its original due date to appear. But man, I was so wrong. The new record is called Tomorrow Forever, and it’s easily the best thing Sweet has done since the ‘90s. It’s a generous 17 songs over 59 minutes, and I’d probably keep all of them, since the album flows so nicely. It’s his most consistent, most full-on power-pop record in many years, and it’s so good to hear him play and sing songs like this again.
All you need is the first song, “Trick,” to know that we’re back in classic Matthew Sweet territory. Guitars chug, lead lines step all over each other, and Sweet harmonizes with himself beautifully. It’s not quite like listening to Girlfriend again – Sweet’s voice is older and more worn – but it’s close. And Sweet’s gift for melody has followed him into his fifties. These songs are simple things, for the most part, but they’re lovely, and you’ll want to sing along. And when he gets deeper and darker, as he does on “Haunted” (featuring Rod Argent on piano), he reminds you just how good he is.
If you backed Tomorrow Forever on Kickstarter, you also got a 12-song bonus album called Tomorrow’s Daughter, which is (amazingly) just as good and just as consistent as the main disc. In fact, some of those songs (like “Years”) stand above the main disc, and the sound is overall rawer. I’m not sure Tomorrow’s Daughter will ever be available outside of the Kickstarter campaign, but combined with the main record, Sweet has given us 29 new tunes over 100 minutes. That’s how you make a comeback.
I’m so happy to be here for this Matthew Sweet renaissance. If you’ve been confused or turned off by Sweet’s post-‘90s output, this is the record you’ve been hoping for. Fingers crossed that it’s just the start of a killer third act. I’ll be listening.
* * * * *
This week’s column ran way too long, so I’m going to hold off on the Second Quarter Report until next week. I’ll also be taking a look at some out-of-the-blue surprises. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.