The title of Will Hoge’s latest record, The Wreckage, may refer to the mess that lovers tend to get themselves into, but it’s also a nod to Hoge’s literally broken body and subsequent convalescence after someone in a van ran over him while Hoge was riding his scooter. The Wreckage is his first album after the accident, and the title song is the album’s slow-burning ballad that asks questions that hit where it hurts: “Why do I keep holding on to what I know is wrong? Everything keeps moving on/Everything but me and you”. Hoge is obviously a guy who can take a punch, and he brings that toughness in unflinching lyrics, delivered with impassioned vocals and sinewy roots rock.
It’s no surprise that Hoge bounced back with a solid new set of songs; he has been, after all, one of the most perseverant singer-songwriters on the folk-rock circuit, touring hard now for better than 15 years and putting out a pile of releases, including seven full-lengths of original material and several independently released live recordings. The Wreckage, despite the near-death turn of events that inform it, is no major departure from his other albums, all of them driving Southern-soulful alt-country records worth owning. That’s no bad thing, as Hoge delivers another no-bullshit collection of scrappy, rootsified tunes.
The record starts with a couple of terrific rockers, the thumping “Hard to Love”, about the disconnect between needing someone and the urge to bail out “in this damn world of lies”, and he backs up such a sentiment with a procession of emotionally raw songs. “Long Gone” is a Tom Petty-style burner that follows the record’s chief theme, that love is a twisted blessing because it lies just outside our reach: “One day you’ll see how good it could be/if you’re not already long gone”. These songs hit hard with a crackle that sounds like a product of Hoge’s years touring with Dan Baird, singer/guitarist for ‘80s hick-rockers the Georgia Satellites, as these four-on-the-floor songs are dedicated to jagged guitars, pounding drums, hard singing, and little else.
If anything, Hoge is singing more urgently than before, sometimes as though his life depends on it, or at least with awareness that one’s chances are limited. Throughout the record, he moves from weary mumbles to grizzled yelps, saving his most expressive, soulful singing for the album-closing “Too Late Too Soon”, on which his voice sounds weathered, but he pushes through to reach those high notes anyway. Think the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. Or Paul Stanley, if he had grown up in Tennessee rather than Queens.
At times, Hoge wears his influences a tad too conspicuously as his lyrics get so nakedly Springsteenian that a less passionate writer might be embarrassed. Take “Highway Wings”, for instance, a song that essentially paraphrases “Thunder Road”’s pullin’-outta-here-to-win idioms: “This town is broke down, baby/Full of dust from rusted dreams/I need to hear that blacktop sing/Underneath my highway wings”. But it’s hard to hold fault with a rock and roll true-believer like Hoge, who writes about falling in love with music on “Even It Breaks Your Heart”, one of the record’s best tracks. Even that love, however, is subject to the pain of loss and elusiveness—Hoge advises a young rock dreamer, himself as a child perhaps, to “keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart”. Sounds like the words of a true lifer.