You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To
(Fluff and Gravy / Decor)
US: 18 Mar 2016
UK: 18 Mar 2016
Stories. Tales told when old friends reconvene. Victories embellished with each telling; defeats disregarded or their blows lessened by time. Rare is the story that remains raw and unflinching amongst friends. Those who’ve followed Oregon’s Richmond Fontaine over the course of the band’s two-decade history know there are no diamonds to be unearthed from Willy Vlautin’s vignettes of hardscrabble souls. Chronicling those on society’s fringe, Vlautin presents only lumps of coal prescribed as plain truth.
Five years removed from 2011’s The High Country, the band laid dormant as founding member Dave Harding relocated to Denmark while Vlautin released his fourth novel (2014’s The Free) and two albums with new band the Delines. Returning for a final bow, You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To marks the end of the road for Richmond Fontaine.
Eking out blurred hours and blended days, the characters inhabiting You Can’t Go Back are those worn down by the burden of freedom that is the American West. Frequenting strip clubs, racetracks and dive bars from Portland to Tulsa, they have no place to call their own. No more present to society at large than dust and dirt, the narrator of “I Got Off the Bus” recalls, “I woke up to see a policeman standing over me / I told him I didn’t mean to run out on everything / He said he didn’t care / As long as I got out of there.” Walking ghosts, they too are haunted by the grit of the past as on “I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up and Remember”, a guided tour through the old neighborhood of one’s upbringing where memories of the dead unfurl without provocation. Asking, “Is this all there is? / Is this what life is?”, the wandering narrator of the existential “A Night in the City” comes to realize he is beyond edification, his “one night rebellion” proving fruitless without his wife for the lonely only exist amongst themselves.
For those lucky enough to find companionship—not necessarily love—the road to the present has endured a potholed past. Whether proffering a stand-in bird as on the absurd “Wake Up Ray” or pleading “Just don’t run out on me while I’m sleeping” on the half-hearted sales job of “Don’t Skip Out on Me”, the lonely must stick together. Understanding such low depths, the scarred antagonist of “Whitey and Me” is given a pass, the song’s narrator noting, “Never seen the reason why to kick someone / Who’s so torn up inside.” Passing no judgment and withholding denouement, Vlautin’s dirty realism serves as poetry for the damned for the siblings of “Three Brothers Roll Into Town” who wait out their cast dies while the question of “Do you think an easy run will find me?” posed on the closing piano coda “Easy Run” is already predetermined.
Vlautin’s sifted pan approach to storytelling has served him well, documenting only that which is discarded. Yet, the songs of Richmond Fontaine would only be unadorned words on paper were it not for Vlautin’s current band mates Dan Eccles, Sean Oldham, Freddy Trujillo and a revolving cast of players, including Jenny Conlee-Drizos (Decemberists) and former members Harding and multi-instrumentalist Paul Brainard shading in dark corners on the calling-it-quits jam “Tapped Out in Tulsa” or throwing consequence to the wind on the staggering “Let’s Hit One More Place”. Serving as mood pieces, instrumentals such as “Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn” and “The Blind Horse” are commonplace on Richmond Fontaine albums; while evoking spirit and sense of place, it’s Brainard’s sweeping pedal steel that accents Vlautin’s crackling voice on “Don’t Skip Out on Me” while his trumpet bolsters the rapid-fire crescendo of “Two Friends Lost at Sea”. Bereft of structures that framed prior albums such as The High Country, Thirteen Cities and Post to Wire, familiar drifters and apparitions occupy bar stools at the loose ends of You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To.
A last musical dinner shared by like-minded friends, Richmond Fontaine has never sounded more at peace. While Vlautin’s characters may never come close to grasping the brass ring of life, the band’s final reading approaches perfection; an Americana capstone, artists present and future should aspire to reach the heights of You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To.