[26 April 2009]
It’s been five years since Richard Shindell last put out a collection of new original material. That’s a long time for a singer-songwriter who earns a living creating music. Nobody can cover unwritten tunes, and Shindell’s compositions were frequently performed by luminaries in the folk world like Joan Baez. Old records don’t sell as well as new products, and while Shindell has a loyal audience, people don’t flock to his concerts in mass numbers. That means he has to play a lot of gigs to earn a living, the plight of all folk-rooted singer-songwriters.
It also builds up expectations. Shindell has been compared to musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams. Like the fans of those artists, his adherents expect every new album to be a masterpiece. Not Far Now may not be another Nebraska or Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but there is enough good stuff here to placate his devotees and win him some new enthusiasts.
Shindell’s strength lies in his ability to construct story songs with accurate details that resonate with larger themes. He knows that the facts speak for themselves, and he sings them in a plain voice with a suggestive ache as his characters are always yearning for something more—usually redemption. Shindell accents these tales by using various stringed instruments like scalpels to cut to the emotional heart of the matter. He’s not sentimental. He understands human fallibility has its own resonance and there’s no need to comment further.
So when he sings about an addict’s struggle to be clean on “State of the Union”, one knows the man is doomed to fail. That’s the inherent in the definition of addiction. But Shindell shows us the character’s Sisyphus-like attempts to keep on trying. The beauty and the moral of the tale lies in the man’s efforts to believe in a higher power even when there’s no reason he should do so.
The existential nature of the tale reveals Shindell’s early biography as a Christian seminarian and later monastic study of Zen Buddhism. He alludes to a similar person in “Gethsemani Goodbye”, a tale of a trip to Thomas Merton’s grave that results in the breakup of a young couple. The mundane details of the story—a man who refuses to ask directions and loses his way—suggests the latent implications inherent in all of our actions. We may not always know where we are going, but if we don’t ask others for help we will never find our way.
Not every song is so heavy. Shindell sings of stubborn mules, street performers, and oddball characters in loving ways that reveal the pleasures and foibles of everyday life. His dedication to craft makes these lighter songs ring, and he’s ably assisted by such stellar session musicians as bassist Viktor Krauss on bass, keyboardist David Sancious, drummer Steve Holley, violinist Sara Milonovich, and other well regarded players. Shindell himself plays acoustic, electric, and twelve-string guitars, electric bass, percussion, piano, and bouzouki.
The nine new songs on Not Far Now reveal Shindell is a seeker who looks for inspiration in the everyday world in which we live. What he finds are people like himself who search for meaning. If they are lucky, they realize the significance of the search itself. As the title of the album implies, the answer isn’t far away. We have to keep on going. This is the soundtrack to accompany our journey.