Austin, Texas—renowned for its bohemian music scene, it has always been its own mini, organic version of Nashville in that it highlights the more homegrown talents of area (and transplant) artists. It now hosts the massive South by Southwest music festival each year, which has opened the scene up to all kinds of music genres, but the true music of Austin could be said to be that of the urbanized cowboy singer-songwriter in the style of Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Steve Earle, who were all parts of the musical community there at one point or another. Following in their footsteps is Slaid Cleaves, who hails from Austin (via Maine) and has become a fixture there. His folk-country-blues, or Americana as it is often inaccurately referred to, is less stark than Van Zandt’s, cheerier than Earle’s, and has until now been much closer to straight country than either.
Cleaves’s new album, Wishbones shows off his slightly darker side, at least thematically, and sounds at times strikingly like Bob Dylan’s Daniel Lanois-produced Time out of Mind—the record label says as much in the press release but it’s obvious regardless. Venturing into rock-ier waters and breaking into a broader genre—or at least going beyond the walls of Americana—is the intention here.
The bouncy title track, co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, deals with the desperation life can present, presumably if wishbones are all that are relied upon for the promise of fulfillment: “You’ll survive on next to nothing / But you won’t live on skin and wishbones”. “Tiger Tom Dixon”, about a fictional boxer whose fondness for drinking and good times becomes his demise, is easily the perkiest song here. The former, co-written with fellow Texan songwriter Rod Picott, and the latter, written solely by Picott, have very dark undercurrents but you’d never know by the sound of them, which is somewhat problematic. The reasons for these incongruities are unclear. Just as a jazzy, up-tempo rendition of the solemn folk standard “Long Black Veil” would seem odd, Cleaves’s bright vocals and twangy guitars smother the somber lyrics in a sugariness that simply seems out of place.
The melancholy “Below”, a story of a man visiting his old hometown, now underwater as a result of damming, gets Cleaves back on track—the lyrics, plainly written and plainly sung, are evocative in just the right way. You can almost see the little valley town in the shadow of a wall of water hovering above, waiting for the villagers to sign away their land before laying down its destruction. The vision of town resident Old May Savage remaining in her house on the hill as the waters flood around her is particularly poignant and Cleaves confirms his support of rural communities vulnerable to corporate interests—a long-time theme in country music.
“Sinner’s Prayer” truly hits the mark and represents the exact turning point of Cleaves’s new direction. The sultry Lanois-inspired percussion starts in beneath producer Gurf Morlix’ lonesome-sounding blues guitar and sets the stage for the self reflection of a man wanting to alter the course of his wayward life: “I keep pretending to be good / But I’m not living like I should”. The lyrics, as always with Cleaves, are simple but here his words hold extra weight and depth. The speaker may or may not be an alter-ego of the singer himself, but either way the song gets right to the marrow of a tormented soul hidden beneath an honest exterior. The road to redemption—sometimes straight, sometimes not—is traveled throughout the album. “Drinkin’ Days” is a promise of sobriety. The final track “New Year’s Day” is a life-affirming vision of death—celebration rather than mourning. Both songs are effective in their tones and musicianship, but the latter is so earnest in its narrative that it comes off a bit corny. For the jaded this music is not.
The songs on Wishbones, even the ones shy of the intended mark, are a very enjoyable listen throughout, but as an album things don’t always jell. However, it effectively shows a talented singer-songwriter in a period of transition—Cleaves has shaved the edge off his voice and comes off slicker than before, dipping his toes in the dicey waters of professional production, sometimes to good effect, other times not as much. But nobody ever improved by doing the same old thing over and over again so his next record may better reveal an artist wiser for having taken a new path.