Ryan Bingham is stepping up and stepping out on his fourth album, ditching his former label Lost Highway and his former band The Dead Horses for a truly independent production. But the results crackle with energy as Bingham delivers a platter that may be his best yet. Bingham’s gritty vocals are as cathartic as ever and these songs are sparkling with rocking riffs and big chords. The one-time pro rodeo rider turned Texas troubadour has blues, country, and Americana influences that are certainly still there. But at his core, Bingham has always been a rock ‘n’ roller and Tomorrowland features him rocking at his best.
Bingham’s underrated first two albums were on such a course, but then 2010’s Junky Star drifted into more of an alt-country realm, perhaps influenced by his award-winning work with T-Bone Burnett on the Crazy Heart soundtrack that won Bingham an Oscar. But Bingham recently told the New York Times that a lot of those darker tunes got harder to sing night after night on the road, and that he therefore set out to write an album that would be more fun to play live. This is particularly understandable since Bingham is a dynamic performer who must be seen live to truly grasp what a top rate talent he is. Bingham also told the Times that he was listening to a lot of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix at the time he was writing the tunes, and this shows in the album’s bigger guitar sound.
“Beg for Broken Legs” opens the album with an epic vibe, building from an acoustic guitar to a big rock groove that eventually features some orchestral backing that does indeed recall the mighty Led Zep. “Western Shores” is a shimmering gem with an uplifting vibe where Bingham sings “you’ve got to heal your heart so you can live again” to the forlorn. Bingham may have made the big time but he clearly hasn’t forgotten his roots as a man of the people. He tells the Times he’s “not a political person or a protest songwriter”, but that’s not really true. This is after all a singer/songwriter who showed up in Madison, Wisconsin during the 2011 anti-union busting protests to sing songs like “The Times They Are a Changing” and “This Land is Your Land” to the protestors. Bingham may not consciously set out to write such tunes, but he’s shown himself to be a socially conscious soul who can’t help but reflect back the injustice he sees in society.
“Flower Bomb” is such an example, a soulful acoustic commentary of sorts where Bingham sings of hoping “to see some signs of visible democracy” and wondering “how in the hell can we progress if we’re all out of work, hooked on pills for stress”. This is an anthem for the 21st century blues that aptly follows in the path of Junky Star’s “Depression”. Bingham hammers this theme home on “Rising of the Ghetto”, an eight-minute opus that sings out to the plight of economic inequality that plagues the modern American landscape. But it does so with the cinematic quality of an observer who has been moved by what he’s witnessed, rather than any sort of preachiness.
Then there’s the barnburning rockers like “Guess Who’s Knocking”, “Heart of Rhythm”, and “The Road I’m On”. There’s varying flavors of bluesy goodness, as hot riffs and slide guitar mesh with big rhythms and Bingham’s ever-soulful vocals. “Keep It Together” opens with some ethereal slide on an ascending progression that finds Bingham singing about persevering through tough times. This is a common theme on his records but one which few do better. “Never Far Behind” oozes with bluesy heart and soul and a cosmic cowboy vibe that finds Bingham in top form on a song about someone close that he lost.
What really makes Tomorrowland a big winner is how strong the album is from start to finish. “Never Ending Show”, track 12, is one of the best songs, an upbeat tune with shimmery electric guitar behind acoustic rhythm guitar on what feels like an instant classic. “No Help From God” is the only song on the album that really slows things down and there’s just a great flow that makes Tomorrowland feel like one of those albums you’ll listen to in the car on countless road trips.
Bingham seems like he’s just entered his prime here and the live shows are sure to be rewarding as well, since these tunes appear tailor made for jamming out. Tomorrowland is easily a top 10 album of the year candidate for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd.