Ryan Culwell: Flatlands

If Flatlands was a movie, it would have better been entitled Badlands given its barren settings and austere atmosphere.

Ryan Culwell


Label: Lightning Rod
Release date: 2015-03-03

While some artists tend to adopt a false veneer, one that emphasizes hard luck stories and a generally dour disposition borne from their supposed trial and tribulation, Ryan Culwell adapts his narratives from actual circumstance. Hailing from the tiny town of Perryton, Texas, he relates his genuine firsthand experiences, rife with the challenges he experienced growing up in a working class family in west Texas. That gives his music an authenticity that few of his peers can claim, or even much less imagine.

Culwell’s released three albums so far, and while his previous efforts have hinted at his ability to convey the bleak imagery so essential to his story, Flatlands may be the one that states it best. It’s a fascinating album, one that offers every indication it will provide some sort of breakthrough.

Culwell pulls out all the stops this time around, wisely enlisting Neilson Hubbard as both producer and player. Hubbard’s knack for casting dark designs ensure Flatlands gets the appropriate ambiance, an overcast, sometimes stormy veil of doom and despair that’s evident in not only the titles, but also the tone that’s given these songs -- "Never Gonna Cry", "Darkness, Piss Down", and "Won’t Come Home" in particular. That’s not to say that the material is wholly given over to despair. Culwell makes it clear he’s going to persevere with resilience and determination. So while Flatlands may sometimes seem overly circumspect, the delivery comes across with a decided sense of triumph. For all the obstacles he bemoans, Culwell still retains his swagger and defiance, a defensive attitude perhaps, but one that serves him well when struggling with his adversity. Even when the music takes its darkest turns -- the stark "Satisfied" describes in bitter detail a young man’s jail cell suicide -- Culwell still manages to carry himself with unrepentant insistence.

Ultimately, it’s the man as much as the music that takes center stage here, a credit to Culwell’s ability to maintain his stoic stance even when the odds seem overwhelming. Like the mysterious loners that populate the films of Sergio Leone, he seems to defy any notion of resignation or defeat. Indeed, if Flatlands was a movie, it would have better been entitled Badlands given its barren settings and austere atmosphere. And if it was a slice of cinema, it would likely end in triumph; however tortured the tale, its ultimate purpose would be to salute Culwell’s acumen and resolve. In the song "Darkness", Culwell’s unbridled attitude comes into focus. "It’s strange and lonely," he sings. "The only sound is some old men in the diner talkin’ bout rain / But that’s only hearsay, don’t believe we’ll see no rain / then again I seen stranger things."

This isn’t about acceptance. Rather, it’s about perseverance. In Culwell’s capable hands, Flatlands becomes a fertile retreat.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.