The history of modern music is littered with losers. Every decade has had one or more big hits that feature the travails of a failure, a dud, or a has-been. From the Beatles (“I’m a Loser”, 1964) to Bob Seger (“Beautiful Loser” 1975), Dan Seals (“Three Time Loser” 1987), Beck (“Loser” 1992), 3 Doors Down (“Loser” 2000) and Simple Plan (“Loser of the Year” 2011) to today, the airwaves have been full of songs of self-pity. The aforementioned are just the tip of the iceberg. No doubt readers can come up with many examples with which they are familiar, and that doesn’t even count songs without the word loser in the title that are about failing (i.e., “I Fought the Law and the Law Won”).
The Lone Bellow have taken the loser concept a step further. Their latest release offers almost a dozen Love Songs For Losers. The trio (Zach Williams, lead vocalist; Brian Elmquist, guitarist; and Kanene Donehey Pipkin, multi-instrumentalist), along with bassist Jason Pipkin and drummer Julian Dorio, spent eight weeks together at the former home of Roy Orbison (which is allegedly haunted) crafting tunes of love and pain, life and death, how we are all doomed to die and the simple joys we can have in the meantime. Orbison’s spirit (think of his discomfited obsession with one’s emotions on tunes like “Only the Lonely”, “Crying”, and “In Dreams”) seems an appropriate touchstone on these new recordings.
That’s particularly true because the losers the Lone Bellow address are mostly themselves. The best songs are the most personal ones, especially those that primary songwriter Williams composed in tribute to his love for his wife. (It should be noted that most songs were co-written by all the band members.) Tunes such as “Unicorn”, “Wherever Your Heart Is”, and “Honey” acknowledge his feelings of inadequacy in light of problems beyond the singer’s control. He may be a loser because there are situations that leave him frustrated, but he simultaneously humblebrags about being lucky in love. Life may be short, as Williams sings in “Homesick”, but it’s good if you lead with your heart.
Kanene Pipkin takes the lead vocals on “Cost of Living”, which she penned. The female voice provides a contrast, but it doesn’t take away from the seamlessness of the production. The song sounds recorded at a slightly lower volume and adds a quiet touch to the proceedings, even though she’s singing loudly. There’s something gospel-like about it, like hearing a church soloist warble after the choir has dropped out. This impression is reinforced by the sparseness of the song that immediately follows it, “Dreaming”, before the pace is picked up again by the appropriately titled “Move”.
The instrumentation on the album sounds big, almost orchestral, with horns on cuts such as “Caught Me Thinking” with blaring horns and “The Great Divide” (written by Elmquist) with quiet strings. The least romantic song is also the one about the album’s biggest loser. The main character of “Gold” is an addict who “puts his paycheck in his arm”. The singer expresses empathy, but this is not a love song despite the album’s title.
As Taylor Swift has recently noted, there’s a certain instinctual attraction to life’s anti-heroes. The Lone Bellow offer consolation to life’s failures. There’s a certain amount of cheekiness about this, as they are often the objects of their own compassion. But aren’t we all the heroes of our dreams?