The first time you listen to Things Change, you start trying to nestle it into neat little categories. It’s straight country. It’s country-rock or rock-country. It’s tear-in-your-beer country. It’s journeyman country, free of flash. Then comes Lonesome Bob himself, in song after song, bulldozing his way through such notions with that agressive, booming, larger-than-life voice.
It’s country music fueled by tears and alcohol and leavin’, but in Lonesome Bob’s hands, it’s so much more than that. At first, Things Change sounds a little generic, but the more you listen to it, you start to realize how truly special the album really is. It’s full of traditional country flourishes and jocular moments, but at its heart is a pain so deep that you wonder how Lonesome Bob found the strength to lay it down in song.
Things Change starts off with a squall of feedback, followed by Lonesome Bob and Allison Moorer (who provides ample backing/duet duties on much of the album) proudly boasting, “I got away with it”. Neither is what you’d call a delicate singer, so the album immediately gets off to a rousing, full-throttle start. “Heather’s All Bummed Out” possesses more of a two-step feel, but initially wry lyrics (“She’s got her cubicle decorated with pictures of Harrison Ford / Right next to her fiance, sometimes a girl gets bored”) shift to darker, more serious paths (“So she’s settling down and setting some goals / At the expense of her dreams”). “In the Time That I Have Left” ups the ante even farther, proclaiming simply, “the battles I have fought / Have left me alive but alone”. After that, it’s the fairly upbeat “I Get Smarter with Every Drink” before Lonesome Bob guides the listener into the emotional black hole at the record’s center.
In early 1998, Lonesome Bob gained custody of his 18-year-old son, Zachary, who had gone into rehab to battle the effects of heroin. In April of that year, Zachary died of hepatitis he had contracted from a dirty needle. It’s no surprise, then, that Zachary’s shadow falls all over Things Change, but it’s rare that an artist is able to turn pure pain into such a pure artistic statement.
“Dying Breed” initially seems like textbook country nihilism (“I take a pint of whisky and crack open its lid / I drink the bottle empty like my poor daddy did”) but you quickly sense an oncoming exorcism when Lonesome Bob sings, “My son takes my needle, some powder and a spoon / He sets his sights on heaven, and shoots for the moon”. He wraps up by observing “No one grows old in this household”, wrapping up an entire family history that sounds so painful you’re thankful he doesn’t go into more detail than he already does.
From there, it’s to the record’s true centerpiece, “Where Are You Tonight?”. In any other context, the song could be taken as a yearning call to a lover, but there’s no doubt that Lonesome Bob is singing about Zachary. It’s the sound of a man railing against total darkness, and Lonesome Bob’s formidable pipes make it a truly frightening experience. A low rumble of guitar gives way to ominous vocals and then, in the chorus, Lonesome Bob just lets it loose. Reportedly, he had to be put in the backyard to record this song because he kept bleeding into the other microphones. I’ll bet the rest of the neighborhood thought he was coming unhinged, because it’s an absolutely visceral performance. It’s a temptation to spend more time trying to describe the song, but ultimately, you’ve just got to hear it. Even if you don’t know the circumstances under which Lonesome Bob wrote the song, you can tell that something primal and scary is going on.
From there, Things Change offers up some truly fine songs (the blue-collar misery of “Weight of the World”, the rollicking “It’d Be Sad If It Weren’t So Funny”, and a truly gentle and touching goodbye in the title track). Unfortunately, “Where Are You Tonight?” puts you in such a shell-shocked haze that you have to go back and listen to the second half of the record as its own separate entity in order to truly appreciate it.
Even if you don’t know anything about Lonesome Bob, Things Change is a fine country record. The playing’s strong, the lyrics even stronger, and Lonesome Bob’s brazen vocals intertwine so effortlessly with Moorer’s that you’d swear they’d been singing together all their lives. The more you find out about Lonesome Bob’s considerable backstory of loss, though, the more the record coalesces as not only a portrait of one man raging against life’s cruelties, but also as a moving memorial to his son.
// Notes from the Road
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