Brent Cowles Teaches Us 'How to Be Okay Alone’
Colorado singer-songwriter Brent Cowles speaks to the power of endurance and embracing the spiritual in the ordinary on new album How to Be Okay Alone.
How to Be Okay Alone
15 June 2018
How to Be Alone is the latest release from Brent Cowles, his first album since his band You Me & Apollo came to an end. There are hints of loneliness and belonging throughout these ten songs, a sense of both longing and resolve, moments informed by the spiritual and the material, the emotional and the intellectual.
Cowles' biography suggests that some of these glimmers are not entirely coincidental. The son of a minister, he attended church several times a week in his youth, though he always maintained a stronger tie to the fishing boat than the church pew. Having endured a divorce early in life and a painful biking accident, his sense of crawling from the ashes is well founded. That's not an overdetermined element of this record, though one can find it if one knows where to look.
The opening "The Fold" carries a striking resemblance to a latter-day hymn, Cowles' voice soaring like a choir loft soloist as he sings about the wearying matters of the day: debt, doubt, temptation, the moments when he's incapable of living up to the ideal he's built up of himself in his head. This isn't exactly a revelation for the listener, but that familiarity becomes a greater comfort in the end. He's singing about something that's intensely personal but intensely personal to us all.
The locomotive rhythms at the heart of "Keep Moving" add to that tune's sense of urgency, its insistence that its protagonist and its listener lift one foot, one leg or one wheel and travel forward into the unknown. Whatever disappointments or rewards are on the other side are inevitable, and at the worst, it'll offer more of the same. At best? Less.
Each of these is built upon musical stylings that combine the dusty vibes of Americana with the soulfulness of '70s radio pop. It feels like a cheap shot to refer to anything as yacht rock without gaining expressed written consent of the artist but fans of the genre, its better elements anyway, will find something to like in these songs. The sense of resolve, the reminder that love lurks in some of the world's darker spaces seems central to the connecting threads here. Perhaps "soulful Americana" is a better designation. Perhaps leaving the music alone to be what it will be is best of all.
Ultimately, How to Be Okay Alone is one of those rare contemporary records that's not aiming for something other than what it is. Cowles isn't trying to create his own Blood on the Tracks; there's no pastiche of whatever happens to be in the Top 10 at the moment or the peak of streaming playlists. If, as the saying goes, one should be themselves because everyone else is already taken, then this is an artist who has certainly not only heard that advice but heeded it. He's better for it, too.
No one can capture the pure ache of "Skylight" quite as he does. It's a hushed hymn with flourishes of the psychedelic in the corner, but it's never wholly of either. It exists in a stylistic twilight that defies easy classification. Instead, it asks only that the listener give precisely one minute and 53 seconds of their time. It's not a bad bargain considering the piece will haunt them long after its final notes have faded.
There are some stranger moments at the record's back end. "Velvet Soul" feels like an amalgamation spaghetti western scores and serrated soul music. Despite the implied smoothness in the title, it's probably the LP's darkest moment and by extension its most contemplative. It's an experiment that doesn't quite rise to the heights of the company it keeps, and yet you can't help but appreciate the way it doesn't hit those marks. Really, when you're intrigued enough to examine an artist's lesser moments you know you're doing something right.
The penultimate "Places" serves as a late hour revelation, a song that brings the greatness of the others into sharp relief. All of the gifts Cowles has displayed elsewhere on the record come to light here, the moving sense of melody, the remarkable phrasing and vocal intonation, his ability to transform a simple phrase into something profound. By the record's final moments we realize that the LP's title is a bit of trick. With music like this, songs this good and artists like Cowles around to light the way, we needn't worry about having to be alone.