Nashville’s Luke Roberts explains the songs on his debut album, Big Bells and Dime Songs, like so: “They were poems that I didn’t feel comfortable not reciting before I go.” That attitude gives you a good sense of Roberts’ classic ethos: a folk musician in the most romantic sense, a writer who submits his verses to an acoustic guitar rather than an obscure literary journal. In other words, Roberts follows in a long (long, long) tradition of Country & Western-infused fingerpickers, laying his plaintive voice and road-borne laments to tape out of a need for confessional self-expression.
If that’s your flavor, Big Bells and Dime Songs should deliver. Roberts is utterly uninterested in re-inventing the wheel with his music, but he puts his creative talents toward honing a specific sound, instead—and he does it quite well. These nine tracks roll by with an understated grandeur, something like the feeling that must come with the train travel depicted on the record’s cover. When Roberts titles a song “All American”, he’s not kidding.
That song, featuring lines like, “You’re gonna do / Whatever you feel is right / I’m gonna do / Whatever is my right / It’s all-American,” serves as an ode to the freewheeling, individual-centric American spirit—you know, the John Wayne one. Or the Johnny Cash one; the Louis L’Amour one. Romanticizing American individualism has fallen out of fashion in the indie-rock world (and since that community is still tethered, however delicately and dissolutely now, to the punk community, it makes sense in our tough times), but it makes sense for a musician tied to the Nashville sounds of decades past to make the idea sound palatable once again.
Big Bells is not a singles record. If you’ll forgive the tired metaphor, it’s more like a landscape—to be taken in all together, more about mood and feeling than about specific points or blades of grass. These songs bleed together, dirges constructed from similar elements toward similar results. Brushed snare pops up here and there above the guitar, or a distant electric reverb, or a humming organ. These shades add enough color to keep things interesting, if not thrilling. But then, Roberts doesn’t seem interested in thrilling. He wants to create and sustain a mood, one of quiet melancholy, or a sadness lightly struck with some beauty.
In that way, Big Bells will likely—for most fans—be the kind of music described as a rainy day record or a soundtrack for studying. That shouldn’t be taken as a slight to Roberts. His music is unobtrusive without being boring, polite without being gutless. Straddling that line is more difficult than it may seem. Roberts sounds just fine doing it on his own, almost as if we weren’t here at all.