Music

Donovan Woods Is an Extraordinary Songwriter and Captures Everyday Life on 'Both Ways'

Photo: Danielle Holbert (Courtesy of Paquin Artists Agency)

Both Ways is a collection of recondite ruminations on love and life. Donovan Woods is an exquisite songwriter who captures the extraordinary aspects of everyday life.

Both Ways
Donovan Woods

Meant Well

20 April 2018

It's been two years since Donovan Woods released the album Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled. Fans need not wait any longer for the follow-up full-length effort. Both Ways, produced by James Bunton, is set for release on 20 April through Meant Well. This new endeavor features Woods' poignant storytelling backed by transcendently affectional music. Twelve tracks in length, the album exhibits Woods' musical thumbprint. Yet Woods also offers skillful musical experimentation and variation that still cultivates listeners' emotional investment.

The single, "Burn That Bridge", is melodious and powerful and the song begins with Woods' typical mellow vibe. As it progresses, string instruments take over and then outperform the vocals and established melody. At the song's peak, it reaches a crescendo that fully engulfs the listener. According to Woods, "Burn That Bridge" is about a same-sex couple realizing their friendship is actually passion. Woods uses repetition such as "so slowly, so slowly, so slowly" or echoes the chorus "we are going to burn that bridge" to express the relationship's vitality. In doing so, repetition becomes a narrative device affirming the relationship's persistence and development.

"Burn That Bridge" has the ability to shift dominant cultural paradigms. There are so few unproblematic representations of LGBTQ identities in music, let alone by artists labeled as country music. Even folk music, with its tendency to lean progressive, is noticeably sleeping on LGBTQ representation. It's there but minimal and overwhelmingly features musicians who identify as women. As musicians before him, Woods uses his social privilege to support LGBTQ representation. Here Woods' music and its video are a platform extending a necessary advocacy. Next, the industry just needs more LGBTQ folk musicians representing themselves.

"Truck Full of Money" showcases downhearted lyrics that form a mediation of life without any conditions. The track problematizes an itinerant lifestyle as a disillusioned artist realizes "most of my job ain't right". "Truck Full of Money" is clearly an inner dialogue and sounds autobiographical. Woods even sings the self-deprecating line that "any guy here could learn to sing like this". Despite the melancholy, "Truck Full of Money" features a full band with several upswings in pace. This creates a spirited energy that suggest the remaining flicker of an underlying passion. This is emblematic of wanting it both ways.

Both Ways features the hushed acoustic musicality and the swaying strings featured prominently in Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled. Yet Woods is clearly experimenting with his sound in Both Ways. There's a danceable quality to the track "I Live a Little Lie". The sonic switch, however, is pacified by a steady piano that subdues the beat. Here Woods harkens the blues and classic country without overly saturating the music. In the same light, the lyrics to "Easy Street" land on a beat so regularly it almost has a hip-hop essence but without a flow. Woods triumphantly experiments with genres and as a result makes his own sound seem elastic.

Both Ways sounds less country than previous endeavors. Throughout Woods relies less frequently on twangy steel pedal guitars. Thereby the album steers away from Woods' musical inclination and dominant trends in folk music. However, this is simply Woods' style: find a morsel of inspiration from other genres and put it together to create an indomitable album. Both Ways is no expectation.

Despite the change in sound, listeners will find that Woods' melancholic and relatable lyrics are still present. This is well stated in Jonathan Frahm's look at "Our Friend Bobby." Likewise, "Good Lover" is representative of Woods' folk sensibilities since it is underscored by a poignant understanding of human relationships. "I Ain't Ever Loved No One", a duet with Rose Cousins, captures the trepidations about bringing someone home for the first time. The album concludes with "Next Year" that demonstrates the anxiety an adolescent boy feels when he imagines adulthood. These songs are heartbreaking in their relatability but are never overly sentimental or maudlin.

Both Ways is a collection of recondite ruminations on love and life. Donovan Woods is an exquisite songwriter who captures the extraordinary aspects of everyday life. He creates amatory music that is riddled with sadness then bolstered by optimism. A contradiction? Maybe. But likely what Woods intends to provoke with Both Ways.

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