Sometimes natural disasters can bring out the best in us. (Or, at least that’s what we thought before Hurricane Katrina.) Besides the death and destruction inherent in tragedy, there are also countless acts of heroism and camaraderie. This was the case in 1997 when the Red River inundated Grand Forks, North Dakota, bringing a deluge of water almost two miles inland. The flood caused a massive evacuation, forcing residents to leave behind their entire lives and attempt to salvage what was left of their beloved city.
A decade later, Tom Brosseau creates a musical tribute to the devastation that struck his hometown. Grand Forks is not a tale of woe or a call for sympathy. Instead Brosseau depicts the tragic flood with unbridled optimism. The troubadour displays an awestruck reverence for nature’s fury, content to quietly submit to whatever wicked hand fate has dealt him. “Gals do a curtsy. Guys do a bow,” he croons on “Here Comes the Water Now”. He speaks of the river as if it has a life of its own. It has “decided to change its form,” and we should not only acknowledge this, but respect its decision.
In the liner notes Brosseau describes how, as a child, his mother warned him not to go down to Red River, afraid the unusually strong currents would lure him away. Tom went there anyway, basking among the gypsies and travelers who roamed the banks seeking what mysteries the water may hold. Now his childhood curiosity has re-emerged as he attempts to articulate the experience of being at the mercy of this same river.
Brosseau provides his most anecdotal evidence of the Grand Forks disaster with the appropriately titled “97 Flood”. It is here that we see the communal atmosphere which existed in the aftermath of the flood. In the song, the residents of Grand Forks band together, filling burlap bags with sand and attempting to barricade their homes against the rising waters. Their effort was fruitless in the face of the Mighty River.
Brosseau has a gentle, soothing voice that rivals Nick Drake and evokes Jeff Buckley. His tempered folk songs are sprinkled with hints of blues, country, and soul. As with 2006’s Empty Houses are Lonely, Brosseau dwells mostly in lulling acoustic fairytales. His songs conjure up memories and induce reveries. The imagery is vivid and his voice is reassuring. On the Grand Forks opener, “I Fly Wherever I Go”, Brosseau offers the vagabond lyric “I could leave tomorrow, with a toothbrush and a suitcase.” He gives the impression he is ready to travel wherever the wind might take him, and we are yearning to come along for the ride.
Some upbeat tunes like “Plaid Lined Jacket” and “There’s More Than One Way to Dance” are a departure form the mellowed-out tracks. The latter displays some vibrant pedal steel guitar that reminds you just how good country music can get. The haunting “Down on Skid Row” is a bass-driven tune that stands in the same vein as Tom Waits, and perhaps Johnny Cash’s later material (“Like the 309”). “Blue Part of the Windshield” is equally captivating as Brosseau laments over some elegant strings, “Save me ‘til the day is through.”
I’d be reluctant to call Grand Forks a concept album, but there definitely is a common theme which runs throughout these nine songs. With Grand Forks, Brosseau gives a compelling perspective on this historical event. In addition to being comparable to traditional folk legends (Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie) Brosseau parallels American bards like Whitman and Emerson with a spirit of democracy and a mild transcendental streak. The album is a candid and charming portrait of this obscure American city. Sufjan Stevens had his Illinois, now Tom Brosseau has Grand Forks.