Chuck Ragan seems to be finally figuring out how to blend his past into the direction he has been heading. The former frontman of the post-hardcore outfit Hot Water Music has released — including this one — four studio albums since going solo, but, while all being promising, they’ve all had something awkward about them. Mostly, they sounded exactly like what they were: an experienced punk rocker trying to force Americana. It might have been the aggressive acoustic strumming or the displaced, echoing harmonies, but it seemed like he couldn’t shake his past enough to get where he wanted to go.
But, Till Midnight is different. The driving drums and country-guitar lead sensibilities add a filtered power to the heavier tracks and the delicate picking and careful vocals add a subtle touch when he slows things down. Some of the tracks have the roar of rock n roll and the fierceness of punk, while others have the control and ache of country. But, the album succeeds in both blending and separating all of the influences and styles that he has gathered and groomed along the way.
With a career as long and storied as his, it seems impossible that Chuck Ragan is only 39. Not that that is necessarily young by music standards, but because he has played such an integral part in two different scenes. Hot Water’s contributions to post-hardcore are invaluable, and with his Revival Tour he bridged the gap between genres onstage, inviting a who’s who of punk, bluegrass, and alt-country on various incarnations of it. In a way he wasn’t just making a transition, but was showing it made sense to do so; that those styles played well together. Which is significant because he’s making it pretty clear that the change of pace is about adapting and evolving, rather than jumping ship to exploit and profiteer off a genre on the rise.
Till Midnight is an extremely important record for Ragan. From the opener, “Something May Catch Fire”, a loud-quiet-loud energetic rocker that brings to mind Lucero, to the closer, “For All We Care”, a fingerpicked heartbreaker that explodes into a monster of a chorus, he seems so much more sure of what he’s doing. Writing lyrics have never been a problem, but arrangements have been at times. On Till Midnight, everything is so melodic and smooth, with a rough overtone that retains his character and charisma, giving the album both his signature stamp and a sense of understanding and care that have been absent from his solo work, which, at times, has been more about raw feeling.
Till Midnight is the best Chuck Ragan solo album to date. It has nothing that seems unnecessary. Or out of place. Or labored. He seems zoned in. And I can’t wait to see what’s on his horizon.