Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars” is set at a fishing hole in Mississippi and concerns a man with a troubled marriage. As is the case with most of Hannah’s characters, crisis looms, as if things could fall apart any second. Mississippi trio Water Liars write with the same sense of foreboding on their self-titled third album. There’s always a storyteller in Water Liars’ music, and the story he tells is the tale of a troubled man. Through their songs, we confront fear and desire, belief and betrayal, triumph and, more often, defeat. In other words, these songs make us feel alive.
Labeling Water Liars as alt-country is a broad stroke, although not entirely inaccurate, I suppose. If Hannah inspires their penchant for storytelling, the manner of telling is indebted to distinguished raconteurs like Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zandt. Frontman Justin Kinkel-Schuster conveys his panoramic vision of America in a voice that is by turns intimate and visceral, devastated and bursting with joy. As for the music, the frequent use of heavy guitar offsets the record’s quieter moments, which are usually rooted in a blend of country and white gospel. “Ray Charles Dream,” for instance, filters the giddy innocence of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll through the rowdy rebellion of ‘80s college rock. But the sludgy distortion on the heavier numbers, such as the album opener, “Cannibal”, points to Black Sabbath rather than R.E.M. or Hüsker Dü. Water Liars generally merge their traditional roots and hard rock tendencies within a single song. A spare chord arrangement on “Last Escape” underscores the speaker’s emotional vulnerability until the tension releases near the end with a sudden blast of earsplitting feedback.
Our troubled man turns up as a lonesome drifter on “I Want Blood”. Andrew Bryant’s martial drumbeat carries the wayward narrator across highways, rivers, and deserts. “Now strange lands hold no fear for me” he assures us, “Cause in every place and company / No matter who was near to me / I’ve been a stranger.” Since he is an outsider, he sees the country with fresh eyes, just as those who stay put are only able to see what is familiar. Skip ahead to the next track, where another vagabond wakes up with heroin shivers in Houston, then has a falling out with his girl in Charlotte. After his luck runs out in Tampa, he heads for Swannanoa, a Virginia estate near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
I looked death in the face.
It was only my father.
If I’d known all along,
I wouldn’t have bothered
With being afraid,
With being a coward,
With trying to fool
Some mysterious power.
His journey to this fabled American place adds a mythic dimension to the song. All along, the hero’s quest has been a search for answers. Ultimately, the answers he seeks are a mystery. What matters—whether he knew it or not from the beginning—is the journey itself. And through his timeless adventures, we cross a vast landscape full of myth and drama and discover this land makes the music. To borrow a phrase from the one-eyed, Keats-quoting motorcyclist in Hannah’s Captain Maximus, “The Deep South might be wretched, but it can howl.”