Taking the new album by Tyler Childers thematically, it’s a journey through, and a loosely metaphoric dissection of, the Christian belief of the Holy Trinity – or God as triune: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To drive this point home, Childers has fashioned this project as a three-disc set, each consisting of the same eight songs but imagined, performed, and produced in three different configurations.
The first disc, Hallelujah, contains the basic tracks; unadorned, raw, featuring little fanfare, like a no-nonsense, get-to-the-point father figure. With the second, Jubilee, the same eight songs are fleshed out with horns, strings, and other accoutrements, representing the younger generation (the son) that builds upon what came before while making it their own.
Joyful Noise, the final disc, is the most radically different. Here, the tracks are virtually unrecognizable save for a detached lyric here and a hook there. Musically, they’re adventurous soundscapes, a sort of “found footage” approach, not unlike what Neil Young offered up with Arc, his half-hour feedback-drenched summation of his 1991 live album, Weld. You could say Joyful Noise has a ghostly aura around it. Get it?
Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?‘s thesis statement comes in the form of the oft-covered J.W. Vaughan hymn, “Old Country Church”. Sprung from previous versions by everyone from Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis to, more recently, Brent Cobb, the song’s lasting power rests on the nostalgia of growing up in a small rural church. Yet it can also strike a chord with anyone who remembers gathering as a community to celebrate, rejoice, and hope for better times.
That theme carries through to the album’s first single, “Angel Band” (which shares its title with the Stanley Brothers bluegrass/gospel standard resurrected at the dawn of the 21st century on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed, O Brother, Where Art Thou, but here a Childers’ original). It’s the final verse where, reaching back to the last verse of John Prine‘s “Pretty Good” (another artist with strong ties to Kentucky), commonalities between everyone are realized, leading them to ponder “why exactly they’ve been fussin’ the whole time””
The title track salutes the time-worn country tradition (such as the Gatlin Brothers’ “Midnight Choir”) of the earthly good ol’ boy who believes heaven should be less pearly gates and harp-strumming angels, and more a venue for his desires to be satisfied. In this case, it’s whether or not he’ll be able to hunt. (In this case, the narrator’s heaven must be the hunted’s hell). On “Way of the Triune God”, Childers strings together the tropes of Southern gospel (old time shoutin’, go tell it on the mountain, the roll is called up high) and sprinkles in some more recent concerns (don’t need the pills you take or the drugs you’re using) to craft a modern high-energy hymn that works. It’s one of the best moments here.
Childers also revisits “Purgatory”, reimagined in the spirit of the rest of Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? He closes with the relatively more soulful and hypnotic “Heart You’ve Been Tendin'”. Two instrumental numbers are also included that are not much more than rhythm tracks on the Hallelujah set but are embellished and fleshed out on Jubilee and Joyful Noise as a sort of dubstep hootenanny.
The set’s thematic bells and whistles at times overshadow the tracks. Childers gets points for his ambition, yet the collection threatens to collapse under the weight of its pretensions. It’s a shame because the songs here rank among the best in his career. As a more fleshed-out single album, it could have been so much more. However, with its core being just eight tracks and two of them basic vocal-less rhythm beds, there’s just not enough steak to justify the sizzle.