Dougie Poole
Photo: Wharf Cat Records

Dougie Poole Drops the Bit on ‘The Rainbow Wheel of Death’

Dougie Poole’s The Rainbow Wheel of Death has the genuine pathos of country’s best songs, with characters searching for love and longing for redemption in bars and dusty halls.

The Rainbow Wheel of Death
Dougie Poole
Wharf Cat Records
24 February 2023

When I first heard “Vaping on the Job”, the lead single from Dougie Poole’s 2020 album, The Freelancer’s Blues, I thought it was a joke. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was a good joke that made for a legitimately great song. Still, it seemed like Poole might’ve concocted his sound as a clever way to stand out in the endless torrent of streaming content, and I wasn’t sure if it had much staying power.

The Freelancer’s Blues was a solid record that I appreciated more and more over time. By the album’s second anniversary, my hang-ups about his “millennial country” bit were easy to ignore, namely because I’d become a big fan of the LP. On it, Poole is a genuine crooner, soaking his Brooklynite concerns and existential dread with classic country cadences and woozy synths, finding a home somewhere between Johnny Paycheck, Sturgill Simpson‘s Metamodern period, and Ween‘s country album. After all, the history of country music is filled with bits, some that have even been said to get out of hand. As long as the music’s good, who cares?

Poole’s new record, The Rainbow Wheel of Death, largely abandons the irony of The Freelancer’s Blues for something more traditional, with Poole sounding less like a pastiche of country greats and more like the real thing. Part of that is the production: Poole ditched the drum machine and (most of) his synths for a live band in the studio, allowing songs like “I Lived My Whole Life Last Night” and “Worried Man Blues 2” to sound like the 1970s outlaw records his earlier albums were merely riffing on.

But even more than the sound, Poole’s songwriting transcended the winking of Freelancer’s Blues and 2017’s Wideass Highway. The Rainbow Wheel of Death has the genuine pathos of country’s best songs, with characters searching for love and longing for redemption in townie bars and dusty halls. Through “It Must Be in Here Somewhere”, we go from North Carolina to Philly in pursuit of a lost love but find nothing except “scraps of a melody left of a / Hand-me-down song.” In “Nothing on This Earth Can Make Me Smile”, Poole is accompanied by little more than a haunting lap steel as his delicate voice catalogs his indifference. “I’ve seen the plague of locusts, the plague of lice / An ocean split right down the middle,” Poole sings, stonefaced. “Ain’t that nice?”

At its best, The Rainbow Wheel of Death is much more than a solid homage to a genre Poole admires. Take the single “High School Gym”, a track indebted to the heartland synth and gothic Americana of Born in the USA, splitting the difference between “I’m on Fire” and “Dancing in the Dark”. Poole dreams of his deceased friends’ ghosts, amazed at how large that group has grown over the years. While this is well-tread ground for Bruce Springsteen and his many imitators, Poole’s delivery turns it into something that feels singular.

“They ask every time that I stop in: can’t you turn back time? / Can’t you curve that line? So we can roll the old dice again?” Poole pauses there before delivering the punchline with a dry resignation: “Ah, but the house it always wins.” Technically speaking, it’s a joke, though it’s clear Poole’s not aiming for a laugh. “Don’t you think I’m funny anymore?” he asked in 2017. With The Rainbow Wheel of Death, it’s clear he’s not looking for an answer. 

RATING 8 / 10