Not content to follow the rules of a single genre, Cory Branan expects his fans to work a bit at keeping up with him. With Adios, he proves worth the effort.
Cory Branan is one of those restless creative spirits not content to limit himself to a singular style, which can be challenging from a marketing perspective. He reminds me of a novelist friend who was once scolded by his agent after having delivered his third novel in as many genres. The agent questioned, with exasperation, "How am I supposed to break you nationally when we have to find a new audience for every book?" Listening to Branan's albums as he has developed is a similar experience because he can genre-jump from one song to another.
Adios, his fifth release and third for Bloodshot, presents all the best elements of Branan's previous records and continues to build the argument that he is amongst the best young songwriters in country music, or Americana, or whatever the hell he's playing at any given moment. A somber streak dominates the album's 14 songs, but not so much that the album's energy wanes. Rather, Branan can shift from wry to wistful and ornery to heartbroken as effortlessly as he changes chords, and his sense of melody and intelligent wordplay draws listeners along the entire time.
"You wanta know exactly how she feels," he sings in "Blacksburg", "You gotta walk to Hell and back in heels." Adios is full of great sing-along lines like this, pulling listeners in with smart lyrics and catchy melodies that borrow from the best of Branan's many influences. Another great and understated line comes from "Walls, MS": "Nothin' ever happens but life and death decisions." Elsewhere, Branan's lyrics in the father-son ballad "The Vow" twist around a surprising realization:
I say, "Well I just thought," and he cut me off, saying, "That's what you get for thinking" / I remember thinking, "That's probably not the best lesson for a kid" / And although that was just something he said, when I see what I get with my thinking / I get to thinking there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way he just did.
Both playful and profound, these lines cut to the heart of a father-son divide.
An encyclopedia of reference points, Branan's also a master of his musical vision, as his songs can be familiar without being derivative. There's something comfortable and well-worn in his songwriting, even if you're discovering it for the first time. "You Got Through" opens with a keyboard riff that evokes Attractions-era Elvis Costello, while the aforementioned "Blacksburg" breaks into a powerhouse E Street Band-inspired instrumental bridge. His world-weary voice in "Equinox" evokes the late, wonderful Bill Morrissey, and the Celtic-punk workout "Just Another Nightmare in America" provides an album highlight with its repeated entreaty to "Look away!" from the slow motion train wreck that is our contemporary moment.
Sadly, Branan's eclecticism can be a bit jarring regarding the album's sequencing, such as when the gentle "Don't Go", with its evocations of Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt, gives way to "Visiting Hours". The latter's synthesized opening comes on like an ad for a President's Day sale from a local furniture store, interrupting the sweet melancholy vibe set by the former. Then again, "Visiting Hours" turns out to be a pretty damn fine song on its own, so one gets over the lack of transition easily enough. The album's penultimate song, it could have served as a fitting closer to this mix of good times and hard luck stories. It's followed, though, by the Harry Chapin-like "My Father Was an Accordion Player", which should have been saved for a B-side. In that context, it might seem like a gem, but here it isn't quite weighty enough to serve as a closer (at least not on an album with so many excellent songs by comparison).
On Adios, Branan leads a cracking three-piece band capable of following his genre-hopping leaps. Drummer Robbie Crowell (formerly of Deer Tick) brings a Buddy Holly run to the album opener, "I Only Know", a crisp drive to the new wavey "Yeah, So What", and a metronomic pulse to "Walls, MS". Meanwhile, James Haggerty's confident bass anchors the songs in a way that invites Branan to flash his growing guitar mastery. Branan's star is definitely on the rise; if he played by the rules and stuck to predictable patterns, he might already be up there, but by following his meandering muse, he's making the journey a lot more interesting for fans of smart country music.