At this point the Robbie Fulks’ country cred is so beyond reproach that it’s hard to believe that the modifier “alt” could have ever swayed the faithful from his reverent brand twang. But for a guy who just turned 50, what’s so invigorating to observe in Fulks isn’t an adherence to some stuffy notion of orthodoxy, it’s how little he gives a crap about anyone else’s notion of great music other than his own. Although he’ll be forever anchored in sweet tuneful country, he’s dabbled in everything from a unabashedly cheesy powerpop to Top 40 covers to an entire Michael Jackson tribute album. His last album the 50-track MP3 dump, 50-Vc. Doberman was a maximalist celebration of Fulks’ prodigious musical breadth and depth with songs sprouting off in all sorts of directions, including an inspired take on Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable”.
Now, over two decades after he began, Robbie’s back where he started at Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. He began his career there as brash hotshot during the height of the No Depression scene, but a lot has changed since then. As he put it in his blog, “I much prefer being a 50-year-old ‘veteran’ over a 33-year-old gatecrasher.” Within the glut of 50-Vc. Doberman there were signs of a return to the curmudgeonly old-school country that fits Fulks like a glove (including early versions of two songs that would make the new record). Now, on Gone Away Backward, he doubles down on his back country bona fides, crafting an album full of sweet, haunting, country-folk tunes that sound refreshingly out-of-place in 2013.
In terms of sound, this record feels like it was hiding in some forgotten Appalachian holler since the end of World War II, just waiting to be discovered. There are no drums and nothing electric, just Fulks on acoustic guitar and Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub, and Ron Spears, trading duties banjo, ﬁddle and upright bass. Most songs are stark and understated and feature only light instrumentation but that restraint makes the moments where the band cuts loose that much more exciting. Fulks shows off his ridiculous mastery of acoustic fingering on the instrumental “Pacific Slope” while leaving the more extended “Snake Chapman’s Tune” to the band to show off their own impressive skills. On the caffeinated standout “Long I Ride” takes manic banjos and high-flying fiddles for an invigorating spin around the block.
The songs on Gone Away Backward may sound decades old (which is a credit to producer Steve Albini’s versatility in the studio), but their subject matter is perfectly suited for the disheartening new normalcy of slow decline in early 21st century America. Although Fulks plays many different characters on the record, they all share a common melancholia and sense that time and life have let them down or passed them by without giving them a fair shake. Everything’s gone to pot for these characters, be it the wino who used to be a mining mogul, the lonely guy watching as his ex-wife lives it up or the unemployed guy slowly realizing that he’s pretty much aged out of the job market. Even the lovers here are star-crossed. In “Rose of Summer” Fulks tells the story of a man who pines for the girl that got away for decades after they both marry other people. The song, featuring gorgeous group harmonies, is one of the sweetest and saddest tunes in Fulks’ long career.
“That’s Where I’m From” is perhaps the record’s emotional center-point, as Fulks sings about the resounding pride and attachment that country people feel to their way of life. This song is song by a bedraggled father chained to an unfulfilling nondescript white collar job which he hates. He draws sustenance and escapes from work’s sterile modernity by taking comfort in the joys of small-town life and passing them on to his son. Fulks’ longing for a more relaxed, less over-exposed existence resonates loudly in the age of Total Information. Although Fulks would never use phrases as pretentious as “locavore” or “slow food”, those newfangled movements are channeling the same desire to be closer to the places we live and life’s basic activities the his characters feel. The lost simplicity of small-town life is contrasted harshly with the big city in songs like “Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener” and “Long I Ride”, which also channel some of the same anti-music industry vitriol as his famous Nashville torch song “Fuck This Town”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Robbie Fulks album if there weren’t some out-and-out weirdness and two of the album’s stranger songs are also its most interesting. “The Many Disguises of God” (which, all right, may have some electric flourishes) is a father’s ominous meditation on life, death and abandonment as sung to his newborn infant. “Imogene” is a ballad (of sorts) to a woman the narrator loves… or possibly wants to kill, it’s unclear. Fulks’ almost-painfully slow guitar picking and flourishes combined with his odd verbal tics make for a creepy but compelling listen that channels the murkiest elements of early backwoods folk and blues.
Despite his prodigious talents, Fulks has always been something of a square peg in a round hole. In Chicago he was a rural boy in the big city, in Nashville he was the traditionalist lost in the slick sea of new country and wherever he went, he could often come off as too eclectic for the purists and too rootsy for the trend-setters. On Gone Away Backward Fulks has taken that iconoclastic history and processed it through the filter of gorgeous Americana. The result: an album where he sounds more like himself than ever before. For a guy with nothing left to prove, Fulks sure seems determined to show off.