Like Gillian Welch, Tom House mines the deep roots of country music, bypassing honky-tonk and all the various 20th century sub-genres, starting instead with the Carter Family and working backwards from there. Unlike Gillian Welch and her stately, poised recreations of pre-war folk, Tom House mines these roots with ferocity and abandon, leaving the blood and dirt on his hands for all to see. His new and fifth album, That Dark Calling, embraces the fear and strangeness of American folk while filtering this tradition through his own verbose, poetic sensibility, a Docks Boggs of the Beat Generation. This could easily make for songs far too self-aware and deliberate -- many are the artists who've tried to achieve synthesis and drifted into awkwardness or overkill. Somehow, Tom House makes it look easy, and he's crafted a record both radically traditional and deeply personal, with stories of murderers on the run and preachers overdosed on holiness sitting side by side with "All Fall Down", a cantankerous lament about the current state of popular music ("Now it's all about stars and hits / And who's sold more and who's got tits / And none of it means two shakes of shit / Let it all fall down").
The melodies, and Tom's adept, banjo-like guitar picking, recall the time-haunted folk styles of Appalachia, but the backing -- supplied by members of Nashville supergroup/collective Lambchop -- is noisy, percussive kitchen-clatter, an uneasy, hectic, backwoods bebop that House rides effortlessly, playing off the changing rhythms with the peaks-and-valleys of his cracked, powerful voice. It's the voice of a bluegrass singer who spent the night before screaming Bible verses at the moon. A woman with a voice that's far prettier but similarly all over the place sings with him on most of the songs, and they find crazy, reckless harmonies. The songs usually begin with House picking uncertainly at his guitar and finding the melody with his most unique vocal habit, a sort of hillbilly scatting made up of gasps, yelps, whines, and moans, until a rudimentary rhythm-section kicks in and the lyrics, delivered with disconcerting passion, start flowing, by which time it's too late for the listener: Tom House has got you by the leg and he ain't gonna let go.
About the lyrics: the man can write. You can listen to these songs all through the day and not get to the bottom of them -- the listener is endlessly rewarded by the sheer denseness of the lyrics and the depths suggested by his turns of phrase and compelling stories. You're taken into another world, or led to see this one in a new way, to see it as a world where everything is called into question and ordinary things are made strange. The time-worn theme of the ramblin' man is taken to almost metaphysical heights in "Exile", a sprawling freight-train of a song that traces the wanderings of a fugitive who starts out "Eighteen and in love with the whole world / One girl in particular but you know how that goes." Before you can nod sympathetically -- don't we all know how that goes? -- the narrator has sliced the throat of his girl's father ("He never cared much for me", he explains) and taken off, beginning an aimless journey which, as the song progresses onward, effects in him a kind of total disconnect from the human race, and we watch him gradually transform into some other kind of creature
Not every song is so dark. "Bake My Beans" is a frantic, catchy celebration of food and family dysfunction, "Hey Tom" is a fun song about picking up and leaving, and "Susan's Song" is a tender, heartbroken paean to a lost love. Even in those, though, an undercurrent of discontent and darkness remains. The most beautiful song, perhaps, is "Too Close to God", which features House alone with his guitar, telling the story of a preacher, "Brother Michael", who was found by his congregation, fresh out of the wilderness and "Stumblin' around / Leaves in his hair, dirt caked to his neck", wounded by grace, a casualty of prayer. Some were sure he'd gone crazy, but others, more intuitive, "had their doubts". House tells us exactly what happened in the song's chorus: "He got too close to God / And his eyes were touched with light / And he could not hide his nakedness / Not in the darkest night". In the second verse he forsakes conventional life and returns to the woods where he "Laid down in the grass / And he let the wind flow over him / And he let the seasons pass" proclaiming that "This world ain't mine / And it's all there is / In all its grandeur / And its emptiness".
The title song, "That Dark Calling", is among the most chilling. A major-key waltz featuring just Tom's guitar, a loan, sobbing fiddle, and harmonies by the aforementioned woman, it's a pitiless, unflinching self-examination by an angry man, looking back on his life without judgment or excuses. "And the wind blows so hot", he sings, "And the wind blows so hard / And dry my face, become like me / All beaten, mean and scarred / I've been studying my life / Some reason, even there / I was damned somehow to start / I'm so angry and don't care / It's that dark calling in my blood".
The song also provides what has to be the best summary of the record, with all its panic and fire, gentleness and beauty: "I signed my name / I swore an oath / To God or Satan / Maybe both." It's difficult to tell who Tom House is working for, but he's doing it well.