With a title like Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, it’s pretty evident that Slaid Cleaves’s newest record isn’t the happiest thing you’ll listen to this month. In addition to the typical subject matter of heartbreak, despair, and dying dreams, Cleaves also tackles capital punishment, war, and lost idealism. Depressing, yes, but also beautiful.
The Austin-based, Maine-born singer-songwriter is back with his first album of original music since Wishbones dropped over five years ago. His last release, 2006’s Unsung, was a critically acclaimed collection of covers from, yep, unsung artists and writers. While Cleaves is a masterful interpreter of songs, it’s nice to hear his own material again. He wrote or co-wrote ten of the album’s eleven tracks, the lone cover an eerie version of bluesman Ray Bonneville’s murder song “Run Jolee Run”.
Cleaves has a novelist’s eye for detail, bringing songs to life with simple observations like this one from “Hard to Believe”: “Street girls hop from foot to foot trying to keep warm / Trying to pay a few bills down before the next big storm / On a corner trembling in the wind, Amazed at the mess they’re in / Wiping their noses on their sleeves / It’s hard to believe”. Who needs music videos when you can conjure up images like that?
There’s not a bad song to be found on the album—of course, it’s pretty hard to find one in the entire Slaid discography—but one stands out. “Twistin’” is something of a companion piece to Billie Holiday’s famous “Strange Fruit”—unlike “Strange Fruit”, “Twistin’” is about legal execution, but still manages to encapsulate the violent voyeurism of lynch mobs. The song is told from the viewpoint of the executioner, ready to hang a condemned man in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. Cleaves paints a horrifying picture as he whisper-sings, “Men held up their babies to see / Reporters jotted down a tale / Hawkers brought out lemonade / And the ladies headed for the hangin’ day sale”.
Contemporary social issues don’t escape Cleaves’s sharp tongue, either. The deeply sarcastic “Beautiful Thing” channels Steve Earle with catchy and pointed lyrics, set here to an ear-wormy, pop-influenced arrangement. There are lots of alt-country songs out there about recent happenings, but few songwriters can state their opinion as succinctly as Slaid does when he spits “We wonder how our leaders could ever deceive us / While the profiteers count their cash and praise Jesus / The press sings another chorus of ‘Let Freedom Ring’ / We send our boys away to come home in parts / Believe the lies with all our hearts / It’s a beautiful thing”.
Combine the above average writing with the production skills of longtime Cleaves collaborator Gurf Morlix (who also contributes his legendary guitar on Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away) and you’ve got yourself a frontrunner for Americana album of the year. It’s unfortunate that Slaid Cleaves only seems to come out with original albums every four to five years, but if the long periods between albums always result in material like this, then it’s worth the waiting.