Dylan LeBlanc’s fifth album, Coyote, is a concept project about a man living on the edge and doing what it takes to survive in a harsh world. The protagonist finds himself trapped in criminal enterprises and dire situations. The details about his life, circumstances, experiences with Mexican drug cartels, prison, and finding love make a compelling story. LeBlanc sings in the voice of a desperate man. He sounds like one who suffers long after the initial pain is gone.
The lyrics are more atmospheric than narrative. We never know exactly what’s going on, but the references to “dark water”, “monsters in a closet”, and “tears running down black mascara” make it clear that something sinister surrounds the protagonist. According to LeBlanc, the tale is autobiographical and confessional. Despite Henry David Thoreau’s adage about most people living lives of quiet desperation, this seems a stretch. Coyote is more melodrama than human drama. The material is worth hearing because of its merits rather than for insights about its creator.
LeBlanc wrote (or co-wrote) all 13 tracks and produced the record. LeBlanc also supplied background vocals and plays lead electric and acoustic guitars. He’s aided by his father, James, and a tight combo of players that include Seth Kauffman (bass), Jim “Moose” Brown (keys), Fred Eltringham (drums), Laura Epling (violin), Austin Hoke (cello), Eleanore Denig (viola), and the Secret Sisters (vocals). The strings add a sophisticated touch to the grimy specifics, not only the violin, cello, and viola, but LeBlanc frequently plays his acoustic guitar as if it is a classical instrument.
The protagonist works hard at learning what it seems he already knows. “The cycle goes on and on / Somebody done somebody wrong / Though the words may change / the headlines stay the same,” he croons on “The Crowd Goes Wild”. He knows that when he looks in the mirror, the bad guy is looking back at him. It’s unclear whether he has changed. Coyote is suspenseful because the listener can sympathize with its main character and still wonder if he is a monster—partially of his own making.
The musical arrangements also beg the question. Not only does the singer wonder who he is and what he has become, the players also combine different sonic elements that generate positive and negative (harmonics and distortion) sounds so that one is never sure how to respond. There is a general fogginess in the use of reverb and feedback that suggests indeterminacy.
LeBlanc’s songcraft focuses on the Coyote’s ability to survive. The animal that has outlived many of its animal peers that have become extinct has had to resort to deplorable acts to live. Violence and recklessness have shaped the main character just as the destruction of the natural landscape has turned the prairie wolf into something much different than it once was. He has learned to adapt. The world in which the title beast lives has largely made him who he is.
Whether living was worth the cost doesn’t matter. LeBlanc is more interested in depicting what exists than judging it. He offers a picture of a wretched individual and says it is a self-portrait. I hope not for his sake, but this tale reveals that LeBlanc understands what it can take to live in the modern world.