Perfect Abandon seems to try and fit as many people into a tiny corner as possible. It's a straight-ahead folk record, but it walks that straight road with a crooked walk.
In 2007, Tom Brosseau released Cavalier, his most pared down and achingly clear record. His voice and guitar were close to the mic, both high in the mix, creating an intimacy with the listener that worked well with his sweet, reedy voice. His next record, Posthumous Success completely left that spare intimacy behind in favor of full-band expanse. He's spent the years since digging back into that intimacy, on recordings with the likes of John C. Reilly and Angel Correa, and on his last record, 2014's excellently stripped down Grass Punks.
Now, Brosseau has returned with Perfect Abandon a record where nothing has changed and yet nothing is quite the same. There is, at times, a band playing with Brosseau, but they sound like they're all in the same small room, huddled around the same microphone. If Posthumous Success was about stretching the boundaries, Perfect Abandon seems to try and fit as many people into a tiny corner as possible. And yet the results aren't claustrophobic but rather beautiful, still spare yet spacious, carefully layered yet decidedly unfussy. It's a straight-ahead folk record, but it walks that straight road with a crooked walk.
And a crooked smile, apparently. Or so Brosseau tells us in the opening self-myth tune "Hard Luck Boy", where Brosseau claims his smile is crooked ("a Lyle Lovett smile") and recounts being left behind by his mother in a department store as a child, a mother he never saw again. Brosseau softly picks at his guitar, and speak-sings the words of the song in a hushed tone, as if he's still the little kid playing fort in the middle of the dress racks, looking out at the legs passing by. The song works, not just as its own curious story-song, but also as a sort of statement of principles. That image of the kids looking out from under the rack at the legs passing by (notably all women's) suggests the kind of inherent longing and nostalgia in just about everything Brosseau does. Even as the memories become more grown up and the longing less innocent, on the lusty dreams of "Landlord Jackie", there's a sense of remove in the song, as if those tales of "Tommy Salami" cleaning up Jackie's yard are from some foregone era, even if they're not.
The thing about Perfect Abandon that separates it from the usual folk nostalgia, is that this distance of time, this sense of long roads travelled, feels more obviously spiritual. After the self-myth of the first song, the inherent self-definition of it, Brosseau spends much of the record fleeing from or getting tangled in or searching for faith. In the excellently aching, campfire waltz of "Tell Me Lord", Brosseau pleas to know "where in the world is the moon" and he sings that last word in such a high, lonesome coo that it's almost as if he's howling at it, like a lost, wounded wolf. On "Island in the Prairie Sea", Brosseau sits under an oak tree that reaches into the sky like a "dying hand", a connection that will never quite be made. "Landlord Jackie" is full of weighted language. "Coveted her I did," he tells us, after he suggests his "fortitude was up on trial." Brosseau sings closer "The Wholesome Pillars" with a gospel strength and seriousness. "Find your wholesome pillars, get yourself up there," he all but commands as he warns of a flood coming.
For all the weight of faith here, it's not played as metaphor. Instead it feels like a real presence in these songs, in the tales they contain. The music itself injects the same immediacy. Brosseau's guitar work always seems simple, but here he plays in different tempos and phrasings that give the album a breadth of moods Grass Punks only hinted at. Meanwhile, the band fills out songs nicely when they're called to action, with the Spaghetti Western echoes of "Take Fountain", the gliding fills and thumping percussion of "My Sweetest Friend", or the blue-light glistening of "The Wholesome Pillars". The instrumentation adds heft without weighing songs down, and the resulting record is one willing to ramble without getting lost. Tom Brosseau has long been a troubadour, though he rarely trods the same ground record to record. The sound here is unmistakably his, but in theme and execution, Brosseau has found a new high-water mark, a set of songs that find focus while also fraying beautifully at the ends.