For the past decade, singer/songwriter Sam Johnson has been churning out gritty, anthemic punk rock as frontman of the Boston-based post-hardcore band Choke Up. Although Johnson tips his hat to his punk roots on his debut album, Along the Dark Edges of Everything is a poetic blend of plaintive indie rock and haunting Americana expressive of a wistful country heart. Although comparisons to Conor Oberst and Better Oblivion Community Center will likely be drawn because of Johnson’s emotive folk and vocal register, this record is also for fans of John K. Sampson, Okkervil River, Christian Lee Hutson, and Bruce Springsteen.
The record begins with the exhilarating, freewheeling folk-rock and tasteful guitar licks of “Get Lost,” a song that recalls the poignant twang of Ruston Kelly before branching out into an imaginative call to nature. Anchored by the sturdy rhythm section of bassist Aaron Bernard and drummer Ryan Stack, the shimmering, harmonica-laden track sonically captures the “misty waves” of Arethusa Falls with majestic Rhodes keyboards and Johnson’s musing, pining lyricism. “I wanna get lost / In white-capped mountains and simple awe / Tear the sleeve that bears the cross / Declare my own détente,” Johnson sings.
Movement and inertia are central themes on the album as this song’s spiritual antithesis, “Road Salt”, later expresses the opposing desire to remain rooted. The sweetheart of “Road Salt” implores, “Baby, we’re still young / Maybe we weren’t meant to rust in New England”, while Johnson later acknowledges, “Stars were in her eyes, and I shot them down / Shards were strewn far and wide on the cold streets of this town / Now those dreams are just road salt on the frozen ground.” On Along the Dark Edges of Everything, Johnson clears equal space for breathtaking peaks of freedom and shadowy chasms of obstinacy.
Another theme permeating the record is the thaw of adolescent angst and resentment. With a nod to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, “Brag of My Heart” sways equally in the moonlight or the bar light. Featuring guitar reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”, tasteful keys, and elegiac lyrics that mournfully let go of past emotions, stirring vocal harmonies appear here. “Haunted construction sites rise like the tide / I am the moon every time I walk by / Oh, I know lost souls who would kill for clear eyes / Here I got one hand on the hammer and the other on the dynamite.”
“Blue Jeans” travels even farther backward in time, transporting listeners to an age “when an acre of weeds was Narnia”. Featuring earthy, reverberating guitar recalling the style of Chris Isaak with a country twist, on this welcome track Johnson takes a wistful glance back at the dusty songs that helped him survive his adolescent angst. The song’s outro mixes some post-rock guitar work reminiscent of Caspian, harmonica, and piano, somehow generating an atmosphere kindred to Phoebe Bridgers‘ Stranger in the Alps.
Elsewhere, on “Wildfire”, Johnson excavates his punk roots, transporting listeners to his Allston, Massachusetts days when he witnessed “acclaim in crowded, beer-soaked basements / Through stormy eyes heavy with codeine.” The first single, an upbeat folk-punk anthem, “Wildfire”, reflects on the spark that was lit in Johnson’s childhood. This wildfire spread throughout his 20s playing with Choke Up (with Death incarnate appearing as the Mephistopheles to Johnson’s punk Faust). Finally, the “cooling of ember in [his] belly” as Johnson grapples with how little he cares that these flames are extinguished.
The songs “Hard Time”, “Good Woman”, and “Haunt Me” all deal in personal darkness, reflecting that “dark moments exist in the brightest places” and “ain’t nothing scarier than one’s own mind.” On “Haunt Me” in particular, darkness creeps into the light as Johnson’s novel rockabilly flavor puts a contemporary spin on a vintage Carl Perkins sound. Johnson implies that to become an adult, we must let go of our fear of the dark and our obsession with the dark. We must voluntarily carry our darkness around as a mere fact of life.
The songs about relationships are especially compelling here. One of these is “Black Sheep Wine”, which reportedly nearly landed on Choke Up’s seminal punk album Black Coffee, Bad Habits. The album’s most heart-rending song, the track soars with harmonica coupled with a searing earworm guitar riff. “I saw the constants crumble and your sister grow up / You lit road flares at the rubble where family deconstructs,” Johnson sings. The song tells the tale of a relationship that has persevered and matured through the wreckage of loss. “Bad World” is another effective song about a personal connection that carries over the resounding 1950s tinged guitar style from “Blue Jeans”. Johnson ruefully reflects, “I wish I had told you that you brought some good to my bad world.”
A fitting end to the album, “True North” closes things out on a high note with a love song that begins quietly but builds into star-struck indie rock with majestic backing vocals and a goosebump-inducing refrain. “Like ash in the air and sand through your fingers / The thread that holds the earth to me.” Blending beauty with ruin on Along the Dark Edges of Everything, Sam Johnson gracefully matures into an alt-country songwriter of considerable versatility and depth.