A couple of years back I had a couple of friends going through the end of some long term relationships. I did my best to lend a sympathetic ear but I'm not that good at advice so eventually I'd say something like it's okay to wallow in woe and natural to be sad then bitter then maybe (more than) a bit reckless as long as you come out the other side. Balls are always gonna get pitched at mood swings and it's important not to let them strike you out. Putting everything into it and purge those bad feeling demons. A lot of squares at that moment would then suggest some book to read. Me, well I would then turn them on to Harlan T Bobo's first album "Too Much Love." It told a story better than a lot of books I've read. A story of a guy break up and he ain't taking it too easy. Letting him eat it his insides up, missing his kids, self medicating the mood swings, hoping for forgiveness even though maybe one last night together might be okay and mean just as much. Delivered in a Leonard Cohen type of suaveness meets Lou Reed's darkness in both it's musical execution and Harlan's baritone whisper (though Harlan can belt it out loud when he needs to) it was one of the best "dark" novels I've ever listened to.
Leading off his new album with it's title track it seems as if Harlan days are a bit brighter. Much more self assured. He sounds almost downright happy as he promises to his new love that he'll make her children feel at home, treat them as his own and even though he misses hanging out with his friends and hates her coffee but like the way he feels when he's with her over a simple acoustic guitar and sparse harmonies backing. He proves it when he mentions that he'll sing it up high so it touches bird's wings and then does it (well, as high as his smokey barroom voice will allow him at least). Maybe "downright happy" is a bit too much to assume but he at least seems decidedly content at the moment...following it is "God's Lamb" though, where's past demon's stop buy to visit and throw broken glass all over a his sheet of comfort. A rollercoaster of nerves that build up to a high point then drop into an abyss. Jerking to the left, tipping to the right and moments of feeling safety is back on to be dumped back into desperation til it grinds to a halt. The not so safe landing finds someone in the hospital "Baptist Memorial." What happened? Is our narrator having an out of body experience and watching his life pass before his eyes? Is he the one responsible for putting others there? An accident? A heart attack? An overdose? Observations of tubes up noses and in hearts and there's only so much poison one can take (Depression meds? Alcohol?). With a Berlin era Bowie diggin' southern church sounds musical bed and a very despondent cello-the song stands out not only for being a departure from other works the general has heard from Harlan so far but also for the questions like the ones I was asking.
"My first love is the one I think most about" he explains in his smoke and honey voice over a 50's-ish ballad part to start off "My Life" blaming youth on relationships gone wrong all those years ago and is still doing to this day while wishing he had a family and a home even if it isn't the one of his dreams but...IT HIS LIFE so cue the band and have them play something upbeat. Upbeat like a Buddy Holly song being shot through a cannon of dysfunctional advice from your father, a bit of distortion, way more bite in the guitar sound, Memphis horn stabs and possibly a subliminal nod to the Patti Smith Group's arrangement of "Gloria". "I could scream at the walls and lose my hair over problems the could easily be cured by prescriptions drugs." Is there is a bit or sarcasm in that line? I've had my shares with bouts of things where that is what the doctor ordered. No, ya don't feel so "bad" anymore but just as many times you don't "feel" anything. Emotions can be a bitch but it better than feeling nothing at all.
"Tick Tock" starts out appropriately in a watching the hands on a clock tempo. Almost like a nursery rhyme or a lullaby which then leads into a grand country waltz with lots of piano and cello. It's one of those kind of songs that you'd sing to your young child while they stand on the tops of your feet to dance with you. Shake every hour and part. It's followed by "Pragmatic Woman", a country-ish feeling but much more stripped down tune about a lady who has a lot on her hands when it comes to keeping a relationship together. Think a much more somber and dysfunctional update of Waylon's 'Good Hearted Woman."
Now that I've mentioned Waylon "So Bad" seems to have a musical nod the sound him and some of the other original outlaw country guys were making in the 70's. Lyrically though it's more complex though wondering where the next step to go in a love affair and the one of the most clever ways of telling the female in your life that her friends are sluts. "Last Time" mentions that "he's not the brightest boy in the land but we love him still" with a barrelhouse piano and the bluesier end of the late period Beatles. He's "alive living in dreams" and keeps pushing on.
"Sick Of It" is the noisiest song on the album with a stumbly off time tempo, dirty guitar and distorted vocals. It's followed by "One Of These Days" seems like the sequel to "Pragmatic Woman". Same type of sparse arraignment but she just couldn't take it anymore and the man is trying to convince himself it was all her fault and she's gonna regret it. The thing is that the vocals sound so heartbroken and the strings behind it cry where it's he's the one that is full of regret.
The album ends with "Pretty Foolish Things" a Nick Drake like piece who's first line is about not being trusted with cash and the last about not being able to be trusted with love with different kinds of that that some people can't manage wisely in between.
"I'm Your Man" didn't grab my attention as instantly "Too Much Love" did. Part of that was because it "Too Much Love" sounded much more immediate both lyrically and musically. The right time/right place kinda thing. The more I let this one sink and soak into my brain though the more I get out of it. I've been listening to it on at least a 2x's daily basis for the past few weeks and the story here is a bit more varied, both shrouded in ambiguities and glaring in insecurities. I am probably way off base on what I have interpreted from the songs here but that's why I keep coming back. Lots of artist have a problem making some as good or as interesting as their first work but Harlan does it almost flawlessly.