Big Bad Luv might just turn 2017 into the Year of John Moreland.
Big Bad Luv is Oklahoman John Moreland’s fourth solo record and the seventh (counting albums with Black Gold Band and Dust Bowl Souls) to feature his gruff vocals and ever-developing songwriter’s eye for telling tales of broken dreams and stubborn streaks. Originally inspired by his discovery of Steve Earle to trade punk for folk, Moreland’s last couple records (High on Tulsa Heat and In the Throes) evoked other masters of downtrodden, working class folk like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Dave Alvin. His songs of gentle beauty and stubborn perseverance caught the ears of Sons of Anarchy producers, who included three of his songs over that series’ run.
With Big Bad Luv, Moreland’s already impressive growth curve takes another sharp turn upward. Here, he creates a folk-inflected rock 'n' roll record that calls to mind the Band’s best moments, though comparisons to Springsteen and the E Street Band in their prime are sure to come as well. Basically, Big Bad Luv can hold its own next to any of the great Americana-tinged rock 'n' roll records of the past, from Scarecrow to Full Moon Fever to Copperhead Road.
Big Bad Luv opens with a big bang: “Salisaw Blue” is the kind of driving, careening song that fans will still be shouting for at shows ten years from now. “I don’t own anything / You don’t know shit,” Moreland sings with an audible grin, inviting the listener along on what promises to be a memorable, if not downright dangerous, excursion: “Let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered.” When there’s nothing to lose, there’s everything to risk. “Old Wounds” continues on the promise of maybe getting hurt while trying to find something better. “Love’s a violent word, don’t you forget it,” Moreland reminds us before dispensing the kind of offhand songwriting advice that betrays his brilliance: “If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.” Wherever this engine is taking us, there’s ample promise it will be worth the trip.
In his quieter moments, as on “No Glory in Regret” or the excellent album-closer “Latchkey Kid”, Moreland’s plucked melodies can evoke the late Dave Carter, his lyrics, too, revealing a similar and surprising tenderness. Moreland has a knack, like in “Every Kind of Wrong”, for playing the unapologetic loner/loser/lover all in one stroke, stubbornly persistent, flawed but forgivable. He cuts to the sincere but imperfect heart of matters of the heart. “I don’t need an answer,” he sings later in his Springsteen-like drawl, “I need you.” And if Springsteen had written “Lies I Chose to Believe” for his own Tunnel of Love album, there’d probably be fewer copies of that CD crowding used bins.
Where Moreland’s previous two records were low-key, solo productions, Big Bad Luv is a band record, with Moreland enjoying able accompaniment from a collection of trusted collaborators: Aaron Boehler on bass, Paddy Ryan on drums, and Jared Tyler on dobro. Multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney (who engineered High on Tulsa Heat) provides additional guitar support and trades keyboard duties with Lucero’s Rick Steff. The group provides sure footing whatever the musical terrain. Their playing on “Slow Down Easy” comes on like the Band’s “The Weight”, offering a sure-footed country groove capable of carrying dancers late into a humid Southern night. They marry the good advice of “Ain’t We Gold” to a swampy blues mix, amplifying that song’s search for personal strength and meaning amidst life’s chaos.
Simply put, Big Bad Luv is one of the best albums of 2017, a testament to living in the moment and letting the details sort themselves out.