[25 January 2008]
Ray Bonneville writes gritty tales about love gone wrong, the plight of innocent people in a corrupt world, and the simple beauty of the ordinary world around us. He sings his lyrics in a dusty voice that expresses identification with the common person, who may often be a bit down and out. The closest sonic equivalent would be Bob Dylan circa 1976’s Desire, without the flatness. Meanwhile, Bonneville strums his guitar to a steady beat that seems to continuously comment that life goes on, no matter what happens.
The dozen songs on Bonneville’s latest all employ the literary conceit of natural events as metaphors and symbols for what happens in human lives. Whether he’s singing about “cool cool rain on a hot day” or a “the sun going low”, it’s always clear that he’s talking about the traits of the people whose stories he’s telling. This allows Bonneville to richly evoke moods and feelings that go beyond the bare facts of his tales. For example, the song “Sabine River” concerns a woman who works at the last gas station before New Orleans. She’s had a hard life, but we never learn about the details. Bonneville paints his character study with odd observations of the woman combined with the geographic features of the land: the way in which she leans against the wall and the fire in her eyes with the fact that this is the place where two rivers meet and cut each other off to create a third. We know what Bonneville means when he says “the Sabine River flows on”, that this woman has a rough past but endures with dignity.
Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier) produced the album and plays bass on most of the cuts. He keeps the instrumentation simple and the sound uncluttered. Mostly its Bonneville’s voice in the forefront with his amplified guitar, Morlix’s bass, and either Rick Richards or Geoff Arsenault drumming. Bonneville does play a bluesy harmonica on several cuts and Eliza Gilkyson contributes harmony vocals on a few others.
The disc has a sprawling intimacy whose many moods go all over the places of the human heart. Bonneville can be funny and quirky one minute, and cerebral and reflective the next. Consider the playful “Shy Star”, which concerns an astronomical body too bashful to come out at night, and which then turns into a meditative reflection about life itself—that the singer is just “another speck in the universe made out of nothing more than dust and these few words”. The cosmic transition is made so quickly that it takes one’s breath away. Bonneville’s not being cynical or sarcastic. The songs here consistently offer an optimistic take on the human condition. The best example of this is his tribute to the rebirth of New Orleans, “I Am the Big Easy”. The pride of the city in the wake of Katrina comes across loud and clear in his description of the town’s inhabitants.
Bonneville’s no Pollyana. He sings about how war shatters people’s lives and profits the rich in “Carry the Burden”, domestic abuse in “Run Jolee Run”, and the other hard facts of contemporary existence on various songs. But Bonneville shows our resilience to life’s troubles, and there lies his greatest achievement. He knows things might be hard and unfair, but this is the only world we have. Finding love and making the best of things is all one can do, and maybe that’s enough.