Strength of Horses
The tenth song in the tenth year of recorded output of David Eugene Edwards is entitled “Into the Piano”, which is also an apt title for the musical trajectory he’s traveled in that decade. The gothic hillbilly punk of his early 16 Horsepower work has given way to the more baroque sounds of later 16 Horsepower albums, and Edwards’s latest project, Wovenhand. The bandoneon wheeze of “Neck on the New Blade” and the backwoods Appalachian waltz “Ruthie Lingle” evolved laterally into the stately elegance of “Burning Bush” and the hymn-like “Story and Pictures”. Perhaps it’s the courtly influence of almost exclusive touring in Europe, but country mouse has become town mouse. Accordingly, Wovenhand’s instrument of choice is often (though not always) the piano, whose range makes it the perfect conduit for the graceful batch of songs on Consider the Birds. Earthly in its rumbling low registers, ethereal in higher octaves, it is as striking as Edwards’ voice, which is as forceful and impassioned as ever.
Lyrically, it’s no surprise that Consider the Birds deals exclusively in religious themes. But the way in which they are expressed is at times more obscure (“Hang my tobacco hand from a beam”), and at others more straight-forwardly devotional (“Power, glory, honor / Be unto my king”) than in the past. The latter quote comes from the powerful, ominous “To Make a Ring”, a statement of unwavering faith and warning to those who stray even slightly from the path: “Judgment will not be avoided by your unbelief / Your lack of fear / Nor by your prayers to any little idol here”. Unnerving howls and shouts punctuate the Eastern-tinged drone and tribal percussion as Edwards provides the context for his project’s moniker with “We will weave our hands together to make a ring / Forever round the throne”. All of the instruments are played by Edwards here, as on roughly half of Birds, not an uncommon feat these days, but noteworthy because the sheer energy of the performance does not sound like the work of one man layering tracks. In that respect, it’s tough to distinguish between the full-band workouts like “Bleary Eyed Duty” (featuring the sturdy, able trio of Ordy Garrison, Daniel McMahon, and Shane Trost) and the propulsive “Off the Cuff”. They sound equally driven.
“Bleary Eyed Duty” strongly recalls “Last Fist” from the first Wovenhand record. The bass wobbles and vibrates under brushed percussion, the song pushing steadily towards a climactic second half. Edwards has long been the master of the slow burn/thunderous finish in songs like “Strong Man” and “Outlaw Song”. Tension builds and breaks several times over the course of “Duty” with dramatic vigor, usually signaled by McMahon’s piano work. The same is true for the opener “Sparrow Falls”. You feel instinctively that the song will reach a point where Edwards sounds nearly unhinged, and the question of when keeps the song compelling listen after listen. Other songs, like “Chest of Drawers”, remained hushed and atmospheric, no less resonant for their relative quiet. In fact, “Chest of Drawers” could be one the best songs in all of Edwards’ oeuvre. Wovenhand songs are never less than ardent, and most are rendered in somber tones, yet “Chest” has an undercurrent of sadness and weariness I haven’t heard expressed before. The lines “He delights not in the strength of horses / He takes no pleasure in the cleverness of men” appear to allude directly to the 16 Horsepower name, in which case the song is one of purest humility, rare for any artist.
The recent political chatter of Old Europe, secular Europe, elitist Europe (compared with the good ole evangelical USA) might beg the question of how a fiercely religious artist like David Eugene Edwards can be so popular across the pond, but widely unnoticed in his native turf. It could be any number of things. Maybe there’s a growing spiritual movement overseas us Yanks aren’t aware of. It might just be the fascination and appreciation of regional Americana that includes the Handsome Family and other acts maintaining strong European touring careers. Or it could be the continent that brought you the Sistine Chapel (and so much more!) isn’t fooled by false passion, or self-aggrandizing religious art. They know it when they see, and hear, it.