John Moreland’s new album, Big Bad Luv, takes a big leap forward for an artist already wash in buzz. The recent king of sad bastard songs found some joy in recent years, and the rock band of close pals supporting this record elevate his lyrics to a more accessible sound. If you already rode the Moreland wave, you will not be smacked upside the head with shock, but if you have not yet gotten on board, so to speak, you might not even realize the waves have changed.
“There’s two or three songs that I’ve had for a couple years,” notes Moreland, speaking to PopMatters. “I started writing those songs before High on Tulsa Heat had even come out because I wanted to get a jump start on the next record, you know. I feel like putting out a record and just chilling a little while, and then it sneaks up on me, and I’m like, “Oh! I’ve got to make a new record now, and I don’t have any songs.”
So, to step away from the beach theme—or not—Big Bad Luv is exactly the sort of album you will crank up with the windows down on a summer road trip. Hell, you’ll be chair-dancing at the red light. The more upbeat tone is balanced by Moreland’s insight into human relationships and our own tendencies to get stuck in our heads sometimes. You’ll still find yourself quoting him in your deepest conversations with those you love.
“The biggest change is there’s a band on this record,” continues Moreland, “in the sense where it’s not just a band arrangement where I’m playing everything, it’s actually a real band. We tracked mostly live, and that was very different. We recorded in short sessions, where we were just going in, playing, and getting it done pretty quick, not thinking too much about it.
“That’s always my preferred method because if I start thinking too much, I’ll decide that I hate it. I don’t like perfect stuff. I think records are not supposed to be perfect. I like the idea of an imperfect document of a moment that happened in the studio. That’s way cooler thing to me than something that you spent way too much time on and thought way too much about.”
Tulsa, Oklahoma brews a heckuva batch of tight-knit songwriters. The community of John Moreland’s fans are like family to each other, as well, celebrating together at the Holiday Hangout in Arkansas each December. The bands and fans and venue (White Water Tavern) have supported each other through good times and bad, and Big Bad Luv is like the revelry of the good times. When Moreland took his band of brothers to Little Rock to record, it was like a home away from home, where you have to leave just a little before you’re ready to go.
“Yeah, all the musicians are Tulsa guys except for Rick Steff (Lucero) from Memphis who played piano,” says Moreland. “The engineer was from Little Rock, but he used to live in Tulsa, and that’s how we know him. Pearl Rachinsky did the album layout. Matt White (who owns the White Water Tavern) took all the photos for the record, so there’s kind of this Tulsa-Little Rock connection on this record.
“Originally, we had this idea for Big Bad Luv, and we bought a neon sign to have on stage at shows. We took the sign to Little Rock and left it with White to take a bunch of photos of it in weird places where a neon sign shouldn’t be. So, that was the original idea…
Every time he would try to go out and shoot photos, the sign would break—this neon sign was extremely fragile and broke three or four times, and he kept having to take it to get repaired. We were just running out of time like this isn’t going to work. We just picked some photos that he had—some portraits of me on the inside of the packaging that we took that day after we dropped off the sign, but the rest is photos that we thought really suited the vibe of the record. I really prefer it over the original idea.”
On recent records, Moreland has played almost all of the instruments himself, tracking at home. Not only did the band record together live for most of this album, but his buddies from Dawes (Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith) and Shovels and Rope (Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent) added harmonies on a couple of tracks.
For a songwriter who can command a room with his voice and guitar (just watch his late-night TV debut), John Moreland communicates with his band in a special way. Touring as a duo with fellow Oklahoma songwriter, John Calvin Abney, and occasionally adding a rhythm section, his songs grab you in a live show.
“Late-night TV definitely gave me a boost at my shows,” beams Moreland. “I had one foot dipping into Americana, but I come from playing hard-core, and my basis is just a little different than that, so 4AD (his new label) is a good fit. I didn’t consciously think about it, but looking back now, I can see that I was ready to play some rock & roll.
“There’s more of that, and there’s more blues or my take on the blues. When I started making Big Bad Luv, I didn’t know who’d be putting it out, so I think that’s good because I wouldn’t have wanted to write something thinking I had to cater to expectations. I’m getting started on the next album, and I’m trying to figure out where I go from here. I don’t ever want my music to be weird for the hell of it. I want the music to resonate with people and sound like me, but I definitely wanted it to grow, which means it will be different.”