Getting to the heart of the matter has never been difficult for folk singer/songwriter Greg Brown. Maybe it has something to do with fact that while he has toured about the United States consistently over the course of his 25-year long career, he still calls the country’s heartland — and Iowa specifically — his home. Or perhaps it owes more to the unique talents of his family, with a mother who played electric guitar, a grandmother that was a poetess, and a fiery Pentecostal preacher for a father, that gave Brown his intense insight into the depths of his own richly colored creative heart. While the truth probably lies somewhere among those two reasons in combination with a fistful of others, Brown’s gift for weaving delicate melodies and biting lyrics with his characteristically rich baritone has never sounded better than on his 16th Red House Records release Milk of the Moon.
Brown has always had the reputation of being a songwriter’s songwriter, in the same sense as the honorable mantle given to only a handful of artists in the American folk community such as Bob Dylan, John Prine, or Townes Van Zandt. With Milk of the Moon, he again earns his keep among such esteemed company by twisting together his own personal revelations with a healthy dose of humor and longing. “I’m a slow boy, I take it easy / I poke around, I’m a little lazy,” he sings on the honky-tonk boot shuffler “A Little Excited”. “I don’t get loud, I don’t get shook / sit over in the corner and write in my notebook.”
When tackling the subject of love, few performers know the secret to treading lightly and most with the experience to know better will avoid framing a complete album in this vein for fear of sounding hopelessly maudlin. Brown’s simple statements, stripped of any sense of pretension, swing from the coarse advances of a confident Casanova (“Let Me Be Your Gigolo”) to the giddy butterflies of love’s first blush (“A Little Excited”) as well as the inevitable regret of loss (“Milk of the Moon”) and the pain of unrequited yearning (“The Moon is Nearly Full”). In the end, these aren’t just love songs but rather become an involved discourse, a detailed discussion on infatuation, the sensuality of desire, old-fashioned romance.
Milk of the Moon is musically stripped bare with the majority of the tracks carrying little instrumental heft and relying on the intimacy of Brown’s acoustic advances. Where the arrangements manage to carry more flesh than bone, such as with the Dylan-esque barfly blues of “Let Me Be Your Gigolo”, Brown still keeps things tantalizingly simple. Meanwhile, the coffeeshop feel of the leaner numbers like “Mud” find a different sort of weight in their intensely stark sonic landscapes. Backed by his longtime touring partners Pete Heitzman on slide guitar and the vocal support of Karen Savoca, Brown is obviously comfortable in his environs. Also considering that the three collaboratively split the producer’s credits for the disc, their shared vision is what makes this effort mesmerizing.
“Everyone is scared, everyone’s alone / Unless hand reach for hand when the trouble comes,” he muses on “Telling Stories”. “All around the world when the dark night falls / we should be sitting around the fire telling stories.” Whether he’s just fighting off the darkness or confessing his thoughts, Brown offers each verse, each chorus, and each phrase of Milk of the Moon with the sincere kindness and warmth of a country stranger, the type of advice you get where and when you least expect it and the kind that strikes you squarely between the eyes. By the time you turn around after realizing what just transpired, he’s already disappeared, leaving you to ponder the words that will haunt your thoughts for weeks to come.