There are always at least two ways to interpret David Olney’s songs. They involve earthly matters of love, work, and engaging in vices. They are parables about the relationship between human beings and God. The fact that the meanings intertwine so well reveals his talents as a songwriter and philosopher. Olney understands our worldly actions have a ripple effect that goes far beyond what an individual may intend. Everything is connected to everything else.
Olney’s low and gritty vocals belie his heavenly concerns. He also takes things slow and easy, even when all hell is about to break out. Take his entreaties to the boss when the workplace is about to explode on “Situation”. The narrator needs backup. He can’t handle the problem, and he’s not even sure if there is one. But his instincts tell him something is wrong. Olney’s poetic language suggests the narrator himself may only be paranoid and there is no trouble (“Was that a siren’s whine / or was that a woman’s laugh /was that a raven calling / or the sound of broken glass”). Whatever the case, he needs the boss to come down and take care of the issue. Does he mean god and modern life or a worker in a nameless factory? The answer is yes to both.
After 26 albums, Olney’s skills as a songwriter are well-known. His songs have been covered by Del McCoury, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and many others. But the 10 tracks gathered here on Don’t Try to Fight It are among his best. There is not a clunker in the bunch. One of them, “Yesterday’s News”, was originally written (but not recorded) when he was a young man in search of success. The self-referential treatment of this pursuit now as an older man adds another layer to the cut. Or in terms of the song itself, what does last call matter when tomorrow is another day? What does material gain and fame in life mean if there is an afterlife?
Olney sings and plays acoustic guitar and harmonica on the album. He’s joined by Blair Hogan on electric and nylon string guitars, Brock Zeman (who produced and engineered the record) on acoustic guitar and glockenspiel, and various side musicians on drums, fiddle, cello, dobro, piano, accordion, and saxophone. The mostly acoustic instrumentation gives the sound an organic feel, rich with the compost of various Americana traditions. One can hear echoes of waltzes, two-steps, folk songs, country blues, and Southern gospel weaved into the mix. The echoes of the past are made present through people at the precipice of their understanding, whether it’s the person atop the “Ferris Wheel” looking down at the crowd and grasping their unhappy fate, the man at the circus (“Big Top”) seeing a tornado in the distance, or the one who spots the “Crack in the Wall” as an omen of a much bigger problem. Whatever the case, action needs to be taken.
Or not. As he sings with co-writer Kieran Kane on the title track, sometimes it is best not to fight but to cosmically laugh at one’s existential circumstances. Sometimes it is best to let the phone keep on ringing and the train go down the rails without hopping on. Olney makes no claim as a preacher. He understands the attractions of sin and the limitations of clean living. He just pens songs that illuminate the human condition. Whether there is anything more to life, well, he’s still deciding.