[20 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The recently reunited Constantines are a band from Ontario, Canada, but it might be more revealing to remember one of their great early songs was called “Arizona”. The band created rollicking, rough-edged rock songs, kicking up a dust that filled up desert-sized spaces around them. Theirs was a feat of fury and energy, but also of scope and density. Frontman Bry Webb achieves a sort of inversion of this in his solo work and, most convincingly, on his new record, Free Will. There’s a still a light coating of dust here, but Webb doesn’t fill big spaces around him so much as he uses the echo of his songs to define that space, to give him a fixed and quiet place within it. These songs are beautifully spare, and while they are certainly solitary, they are rarely lonesome.
Webb is also a different sort of performer and writer than he was in the Constantines’ heyday. Webb fits his recording around a life as a father and husband. Music creation is part of his life but not necessarily the center of it. And you can feel these songs not as an escape from his life, but as a way to express it. And so there are moments that feel domestic on this record, wrapped as they are in the warm strum of acoustic guitars, the honey-slide of pedal steel guitars, the soft shuffle of drums, even Webb’s own soft, sometimes barely gruff voice. This is an inviting sound, one you could lazily call country with all those elements, but one that probably ties into a long-view, basic notion of folk, music that rises up from a people rooted in a place.
And yet there are tensions in these songs, even as they comfort as they uncover scars. For all its assured solitary feel, the album worries over different kinds of isolation, as if that titular Free Will references the choices we make, the way they can lead us to community or away from that and leave us out in the cold and on our own. Not that it’s about settling down. “You can’t civilize me,” Webb coos over the bluesy, spacious and excellent opener “Fletcher”. “AM Blues” is all bright, pastoral tones, but it starts with Webb’s request to “rattle the cages/ paint the walls.” There is disruption, positive and negative, all around in the present here. In this way, the album isn’t interested in some utopian happiness at the end of the journey so much as a firm foot in a real, well-built life.
The album documents well the things that can lead one away from such an end. But there’s rarely self-pity at play in these songs. “Prove Me Wrong” may be about a broken relationship, or one threatening to break, but Webb sounds resolute. “This is a love song,” he sings in the chorus. “Call me back, / prove me wrong.” It’s not an apology or a declaration. It’s a challenge. Meanwhile, “Positive People” seems to take a jab at the domestic life, at how “positive people are having children”, but it’s more complicated than all that. “Are these postures of defeat?” He keeps asking, and “postures” is the key here. The song doesn’t so much decry family as it does tear down the old, faded image of “mister and missus”. It tears away at an image that seems to create union but really isolates and excludes.
The album can turn darker as well, turning to perhaps the toughest moments to move past. On “Let’s Get Through Today”, Webb admits that, “The more fucked up things get, / the more I love you.” It’s a song that tackles the gaps between people’s emotional realities, and the spare finger-picked guitar highlights that divide beautifully. If Webb is attached to someone going through something hard here, he is also letting go a little, not trying to save anyone but to, once again, leave them to find a better space. The album tackles the mortality this song hints at more directly on “What Part of You”. But it also affirms fledgling steps away from these shadows of the past into the soft light of a better present on “Translator”, and the album ends with the front-porch stomp of “Someplace I’m Supposed to Be” where in Webb is still inching towards that real life, inching towards the people around him.
It is, in the end, an album about connection, and so the sweet sparseness of these songs is both a ruse and a brilliant depiction of how an individual life, the one we tend to lead in youth, becomes the kind of life that fits in somewhere, with other people, family or not. Webb picks out the details beautifully here, and if he howled with the Constantines, here his voice gets all its tension from holding back, from staying quiet. In fact, the album itself is at its best when it pulls at the edges of its own quiet. The few moments that bloom up big and lush here sand a bit of edge off these striking songs, but overall Free Will is a convincing and solid achievement from Webb. So while it’s exciting to hear the Constantines will be back playing shows, to let that news drown out this sweet record would be a mistake.