It’s tough getting older. The hangovers become harder to shake off, the friends become more distant, and you’re expected to mature, without a “How to” manual of any kind. It’s a process that many don’t take to easily. It’s as if maturity and a sombre sense of reality go hand in hand.
Cuff the Duke have long held promise as Canada’s next big act. Throughout their three previous releases, this roots-heavy four-piece has maintained their position as one of the more honest acts out there. The release of Way Down Here brings forth what very well may be a sense of self-realization from the band. They’re getting older, and the time to be young and full of promise is fading. Way Down Here is without a doubt the band’s most mature release to date, though it’s also the most sombre.
Now, Cuff the Duke have never been the sunniest of acts out there. Life Stories for Minimum Wage, their debut EP, painted a rather bleak picture of growing up in suburban Ontario, and Sidelines of the City won’t be hanging out on the Top 40 charts anytime soon. That’s no slag on the quality of the songwriting; frontman Wayne Petti simply feels no need to sugar coat any of his lyrics.
On Way Down Here, however, sombre realities aren’t just touched on: they’re the force that drives the record. Petti and Cuff the Duke hit early and hit hard, opening with “You Were Right”, a shuffling acoustic number. Cuff the Duke’s calming harmonies are showcased, but they can’t hide the emotional weight which the track carries: “Daylight has a way / Of revealing all things honestly / Oh, you were right / I never had enough time”.
It’s not as if Way Down Here is a bummer of a listen. There are moments when the band channels their inner Neil Young and, through a series of ragged solos and ethereal harmonies, find hope through sonic transcendence. The swirl of “Promises” or the rusty swagger of “Another Day in Purgatory” are some of the album’s finer moments.
However as fine as they are, it’s the acoustic feel which permeates Way Down Here that, ironically, speaks to the band’s larger ethos. At almost six minutes, “Need You” is the kind of track that wails with such grace that the pain Cuff the Duke are attempting to translate becomes rather comforting. Cuff the Duke have learnt that the sooner you come to terms with the pain you feel, the sooner you can rise above it all. “Follow Me” lauds the kind of relationships which can see you through times, all with a pedal steel that augments the band’s trademark harmonies.
Essentially, Way Down Here covers all its bases quite well. There is a pertinent theme and there’s an attention to details within the songwriting that separates Cuff the Duke from their peers. Just don’t expect it to make all that shit in your head disappear easily.