On its second album After It All, the Durham-based sextet successfully raids the storehouse of American musical traditions, incorporating influences ranging from blues to folk, rock to pop, and hip-hop to musical theater.
Popular music has always been somewhat infatuated with youth: with staying forever young, reveling in teenage wastelands, fighting for one’s right to party, etc. But in recession-era America, youth has lost some of its former luster, as open roads and big dreams have given way to anxiety about an uncertain job market, flickering prospects for financial and personal stability, forever wars, threatened civil rights, and other substantial worries.
On its second album After It All, Delta Rae situates itself right smack on the horizon of the once-promising American dream, questioning the legacy that young Americans are inheriting from their forebears yet insisting that there’s still grounds to be hopeful about the future. With After It All, the Durham-based sextet raids the storehouse of American musical traditions, incorporating influences ranging from blues to folk, rock to pop, and hip-hop to—most prominently, to this writer’s ears—musical theater. While these more disparate influences crept quietly into its debut Carry the Fire, Delta Rae cranks up the intensity, earnestness, and stylistic hybridity on After It All, creating a product that could just as easily blast through car windows as—a girl can dream—a Broadway theater.
Like a musical, After It All is all about dynamics: it careens from delicate, introspective solo numbers to full-throttle, all-in anthems that encapsulate the Big Themes and Ideas underpinning the entire production. Like the hit movie-turned-musical Once, After It All opens with a delicate, tentatively enunciated number; its title, “Anthem", is paradoxical given its smallness of scale. Sung, like Once’s “Leave", by a single male voice, “Anthem” opens with the lines, “Am I always on the edge of quitting / Of giving up or just forgetting,” a query that aptly frames the conundrum that Delta Rae tackles throughout the album. “I don’t want to fight their old war / Give me something I can hope for,” the singer implores as strings, drums, and harmonies crest above his voice. This plea for something to believe in, framed here as a desperate imperative, shapes the album’s course and, in a minute and a half, establishes its dominant themes: a fear of stagnation and decay in the face of uncertainty, a search for hope and love amidst obstacles, and the effort it takes to keep dreaming when reality itself can be so goddamn punishing.
Two related narrative strands run through After It All: one centers around a love affair built on passion yet occasionally plagued by doubt, and the other explores the changed prospects offered by America’s frontier mythology in the 21st century. Both stories concern the vacillations between contentment and dismay that define any young adult life, and the latter injects political urgency into a body of songs that would otherwise feel dominantly personal.
The stomping rock song “Bethlehem Steel", for example, explores the desolate landscape of the rust belt in a post-industrial age, mourning the receding prospects for success in this sector of the country. It opens like a cyclone, with Brittany Hölljes’s vocal rocketing above pummeling percussion, and goes on to vamp around the idea of a frustrated immaculate conception: “A child was born in Bethlehem / The son of a steelworker, a union man / He grew up tall and he grew up strong / And when he came of age all the steel was gone.” What have we inherited, the song asks, and how do we overcome limitations imposed on us before we were even born? Furiously paced keys and robust backing vocals keep the song charging forward, accentuating the refrain, “He wants gold,” which affirms—as most Delta Rae songs do—that there’s room for optimism in even the most unpromising of situations.
The album loses steam on love ballads like “You’re the One for Me” and “The Meaning of It All", whose hackneyed titles portend a strain of sappy devotionalism and bland philosophizing that the songs unfortunately bear out. A string section, it turns out, can be used for good, as on the ebulliently up-tempo “Run,” or for ill, as when the epitome of a sad violin slides in to accompany the line “cause I’m breaking down and I can tell it’s deep” on “The Meaning of It All". These missteps, however, seem less like outright failures than like the byproduct of the album’s thematic and musical ambition, and its few low points are vastly outweighed by triumphantly original and hope-inducing numbers like “Chasing Twisters” and “Outlaws", not to mention Delta Rae’s signature style of southern-gothic blues, exemplified here on “I Will Never Die".
Like musical theater, After It All might not be for everyone, for it demands that the listener get on board with the grandiosity of its themes and the almost campy excess of its instrumentation. Yet the album carries a message that we all need to hear, delivered by immensely talented young people chasing their artistic dream across the globe and sending back candid dispatches from that frontier. The sum of its parts is both personal and political, confessional and theatrical, and if someone ever makes the genius decision to adapt Delta Rae’s music for the stage, we could all do worse than to buy a ticket.