Country music is in the middle of a boom in songwriters whose commitment mostly rests on narratives. Story songs were vital from the beginning, but lately, there are people who have these tiny writerly details: excellent metaphors, beautiful allusions, wry jokes. Delightfully, there are often songs about the genre, about how the landscape works to inform the genre, or how religion functions within both country music itself and within this landscape, or even about how vernacular music affects the creation of more formally constructed works. I am thinking about Corb Lund, Hayes Carll, Robert Ellis, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and even Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift before 1989. They also are marked by a structural ambiguity, a way of negotiating the constant instability of the genre, of the economy in general, of the dissolution of the middle class suburban family. Angaleena Presley fits into this discourse explicitly, but fascinatingly she might be the moralist of this group.
Her solo album refuses the romantic sentiment of some of new Nashville’s worst excesses, such as how the genre seems to now advertise small towns, drinking, Sunday church and Saturday fucking. There is something slippery in Presley’s response to these excesses, and this unresolved quality establishes a difficult tension with how to love a place, where you are aware of its hypocrisy, and the genuine violence that occurs in that space, the reconciling could be seen to be impossible. This is especially true in the problems of the domestic, especially the intersection of domestic trauma and drugs or alcohol. If we are talking about moralism, this might be the best argument in favour of prohibition, while knowing how much of a disaster the war on drugs is. This is only one example of being caught between two middles.
The whole album is filled with the aching melancholy of wanting something and never getting it, or never wanting someone because you will never get it. How everyone is both broke and broke down, the corruption and failure of the market rotting from the bottom and squeezing from the top, is profoundly realized here. I am thinking especially of the one-two punch of “American Middle Class” and “Dry Country Blues”, which arrives in the middle of the album. “American Middle Class” begins with a taped interview with Presley’s father, discussing his coal miners history. She calls herself a product of the “never give up, american middle class”, and this might be the first mention in recent memory of a big label record extolling the ethics of Union history, but it also talks about how “scholarships went to the rich / and grants went to the poor”, about shit jobs and bad degrees, and eventually becoming a part of the middle class. I keep thinking that the right and the left are collapsing among people Presley’s age. This song, which talks about how her father didn’t get a pension, works hard enough to pay for welfare families, but also about how the middle class sustains America, and how that sustaining class is dying, with the anthemic chorus about tearing down the poor house, but only if we can build it up again, suggests a radical ambivalence that surrounds American politics.
If she is ambivalent about the current situation, her discussion about the problems of small towns and pills might as well come from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, it is a bleak discussion of the failures of economics. The connection of sex, drugs, and money to a failure of middle class aesthetics, is so plainly stated that it cannot even be thought to be bitter: “There is nothing illegal as long as the sheriff gets paid / there is good christian women locking their front doors / praying their daughters don’t turn into meth whores / while their sons are out drinking and driving and trying to get laid.”
Everyone is taking pills, half the county is laid off, and the way she talks about addiction is almost reportage. She thinks about the rise of heroin overdoses due to the lack of OxyContin, and the recent changes to narcotics that make them more difficult to smoke or snort, and also how these addictions come from the body breaking down after shit retail or even shittier warehouse work. The recent pill problems are directly resulting in the move from those good union jobs, into service jobs that just cannot pay the rent. That country music is better at making these connections than most of the press, indicates that the genre still positions itself as a place where working class people get their commentary. That the next song, called “Pain Pills”, has a series of riotous guitar solos, providing a Greek chorus against a set of first- or second-person stories, of construction-worker sons and preacher’s daughter’s made liars and thieves, collapsing and dying due to these barely legitimized medication. Consider these two songs by Presley, the Pistol Annie’s “Taking Pills”, and Brandy Clark’s “Take a Little Pill”, you have to wonder if it means anything that the best of these songs are by women. Is this part of the emotional lifting that women are expected to do, still?
This question of women’s responsibilities in working class communities, are found throughout this work. Her cover of Heidi Newfield’s “Knocked Up” is a little innocent after the references to meth whores, but one believes the shame here more than Newfield’s cover, which was always a bit rollicking and not in an ironic sense. What happens after marrying the boy that knocks you up as a teenager, is the listing song “Drunk”. The song begins with a slow, rolling guitar, and it is almost a cappella. Presley, after decades of doing all of the cleaning, raising babies, shopping for groceries, “whittling down the debt,’ being sexually available — everything she does ends with the line “when you were drunk.” She talks about not keeping secrets anymore :”My daddy loved you like my son / because I kept your secret from everyone,” so she leaves and he stays both in the house, and as a drunk, in an elegant parallelism, that ends on a hopeful note.
It is not all bad news, all failures. The hope continue, in the gorgeously abstracted ballad, “Better Off Red”, which provides this utopian vision that she already lost. When she sings about being strangled by bluegrass, or about how her “daddy don’t give a damn about these things in my head,” and how he “ain’t hurting yet” or how she “wants the bank of the river instead of the sea” — that desire for a home that will never return, it is the small town that one desires, and one can never have. That one can desire this kind of faux-small town, even after knowing of the shamed teenage mothers, all of the pills, and meth, and corrupt cops, it suggests that the balance between ambition and settling is never resolved. It’s a problem she articulates on the song “Somewhere Between a Blessing and a Curse”. When she “thanks God for the moments in between,” she articulates those moments with heartbreaking skill.