A necessary soundtrack for these times: a reflection on America, mid-apocalypse.
The harrowing cover painting on Kevin Gordon’s latest record Long Gone Time captures the haunted spirit of the album perfectly. Titled “After the Flood (Katrina)”, artist Michael Noland depicts a floundering, drowning elk, its majestic horned rack dominating the painting’s center of perspective. The elk’s face is one of exhaustion, its tongue lolling from the side of its open mouth, as the rippling water surrounds and consumes it. The image is set against a background of dark, silhouetted trees and what could either be wild brush or a gathering of people. The identity of just what constitutes the background of the painting is deliberately indistinct. If the artist intends for these silhouettes to represent people, they are gathered in silent witness to this death, helpless to, or disinterested in offering, help. The implication is that both the forces of nature and those of humanity are equally blind to suffering.
Ten years on, Katrina haunts this record by the Louisiana-born Gordon. The title, Long Gone Time is evocative of that after-period and what we’ve learned about ourselves and fractured country. Gordon sings of an America where the old rules no longer matter and our once widely-shared beliefs have been lost, thought their echoes still resonate. It’s not that we have been away, a long time gone; rather, we are living within the gone time, that space between when the old order mattered and the new world to come has revealed itself. It is evocative of that melancholy master of the Victorian era Matthew Arnold’s evocation in “Dover Beach” that we are “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born". Long Gone Time is a poignant reflection on this country in mid-apocalypse.
So much of this album reflects upon broken social codes and cultural promises. Even the loping boogie beat of opener “All in the Mystery” with its bawdy collection of come-ons is shaded by the need to “Drink all night to wash away the day". The driving blues of “GTO” tells a story of a buttoned-up father who works hard to purchase the titular automobile and reveals a hidden, wilder side when behind the wheel. But that happier self is thwarted when the car is stolen. The police succeed in catching the thieves, but the car is gone for good, revealing a world where justice is punitive but not restorative. “Letter to Shreveport” offers a catalog of the old world and what is lost “Hot coffee in a tin percolator, dry biscuits on the stove, / Johnny Horton on the radio; you don’t hear that no more.” The growing paranoia and malaise of the American experience is heartbreakingly captured in “Shotgun Behind the Door”, where the narrator expresses simultaneous feelings of loss, dread, and a blind need to cling to security: “I don’t know what I don’t know in this world anymore. / I say my prayers knowing there’s a shotgun behind the door". I haven’t heard a lyric in the ten years since Katrina that better encapsulates the loss of American optimism.
Gordon divides the album’s ten songs down the middle, half acoustic and half with full band accompaniment. The back and forth gives the album a good sense of flow, driving forward, then slowing down, much like a journey through the bayous and wards of New Orleans and its surroundings. Nashville mainstay Joe V. McMahon, a long time Gordon collaborate, is all over this record, his guitar providing talk-back counterpoint on “All in the Mystery” or chirping and whining like a collection of creatures hidden in the swampland night on “Letter to Shreveport”, where Ron Eoff’s bass grounds the song in a slow, steady churn. Bo Ramsey’s resonator guitar adds expressive, chiming emphasis to the melancholia of “Walking on the Levee.” Gordon’s own voice, for those who haven’t previously heard him, is evocative of Mark Knopfler or, even more so, a world-weary Randy Newman, and he shares that songwriter’s sense of irony.
Twice on the record, Gordon recounts sage songwriting advice provided from the legendary rodeo cowboy and songwriter Brownie Ford. First, in “Letter to Shreveport”, he recounts the words as “Don’t let ‘em mess with your music / Keep it real / Keep it free". Later in “Goodnight Brownie Ford”, he repeats the conversation almost word for word. On Long Gone Time it is obvious that Gordon has followed this advice as he has constructed one of the best country blues records of the year.