It is a known fact that Americans do not mix religion with much of anything at all. In fact, the only time we roll out the holy-roller routine is on the rare occasion that one of us is running for elective office, and even then we avoid specifics like denomination or overly emotional testaments to our god-fearing faithfulness. With rare exceptions we uphold the separation of the spiritual and the secular just as we do the separation of meat from potatoes for which Tupperware and TV Dinners were invented. As a practicing American born only once I must admit that my initial reaction to the thinly failed proselytizing found on the latest from Canadian alt-country outfit Royal City was a mix of surprise and sadly misplaced cynicism. Despite their lyrics, which are unmistakably biblical in metaphor and peppered with pronouns such as “Thee”, the group has constructed a powerfully emotional and poignant album that reclaims the American spiritual from the depths of the irrelevant past and rewrites it for the post-modern age. Continuing their idiosyncratic tradition of honest songwriting with true grit, Royal City pits their shaken but unbowed faith against the specter of a chaotic and corrupt world.
The lyrics penned by frontman Aaron Riches are delivered in such a loose, rambling style that it’s some times easy to miss their deftly hewn metaphors laced with biblical imagery and spiked with personal heartbreak, but by attuning the ears to his rasping Neil Young-ian vocals the rich beauty of the melodies shines through. Riches the Poet seems to stand in wide-eyed wonder, mouth agape at the edge of a vast human wasteland as on the opening track “Bring My Father A Gift”, the specter of sin and the promise of redemption are revealed in the parable of amodern-day miracle worker. On this track as on many others, Riches’ lyrics blur the sacred and profane along with the ancient and the modern. On “She Will Come”, dirt becomes a halo and a New York City street becomes the road to Canaan. This amalgamation tends to feel less like the subtle slight of hand employed by more mainstream evangelical rock bands, or even the less tawdry machinations of Jars of Clay, but rather like a return to the religion of our forbearers, the church of the Carter Family and the humble sinner Johnny Cash. If Riches is playing the role of preacher, it’s not to urge the listener to submit to an all-power deity and give generously to the moguls of the Christian Coalition. With lyrics like “there’s nothing like water when you’re dying of thirst” Riches offers up the possibility of a return to the thoughtful contemplation of the human soul and the revelation of the sacred in the mundane.
As the understated vocals skip lightly over the cavernous depths of their ponderous poesy, Royal City matches this lyrical honesty with simple, graceful melodies and minimalist instrumentation. With rare ingenuity, the band eschews formula and gimmicks, preferring their own breed of slow triple-time shuffles, charming guitar strums and breaks, and gritty fiddle and harp solos that certify Little Heart’s Ease as one-hundred percent solid gold alt-country, a narrow field they share with the likes of Giant Sand and Songs: Ohia. No towering hooks here, just cozy little refrains tucked snuggly into emotionally honest and musically unencumbered verses that feel as good as a warm embrace on a wintry Canadian night, like on “Can’t You”, a tight and surprisingly up-beat ballad whose shoe-gazing stance can’t shrug off its shimmering optimism. The album’s composition recalls a sort of country-folk tenacious populism, its awkward, stumbling electric guitar solos and brash harp interludes grate with compelling dissonance against these sweet melodies and gently flowing lyrics in a celebration of human creativity and vulnerability.
If the album suffers from anything it is its reluctance to see itself as anything more than a teardrop in the vast ocean of humanity and the angelic choirs of heaven. Seemingly without realizing it, Royal City has offered contemporary listeners the promise of redemption and refuge in a sort of city on a hill (no pun intended). While their humility is charming and refreshing in this age of far-reaching hubris, the weak weft of their songs seem to strain under the weight of the message. Many will wonder how to approach these artists and their work that so fearlessly and yet so humbly walks the ambiguous line between the secular and the spiritual, a fact which my morally relativistic paradigm can barely manage to chew. While I am confident that my rationalized and atomized soul is left standing firmly on atheistic ground, and that Louis Palau won’t be calling up Royal City any time soon, I am also certain that I have just been rocked in a whole new way. To see the apocalyptic world of post 9/11 and to feel blessed all the same is a magic few can claim to possess or impart, but once again we Americans look to rock and roll to save our ever-loving souls.