Kingdom in My Mind, the Wood Brothers’ recent studio album, is an act of musical showmanship. Exploring musical genres and utilizing an array of instrumentation, Oliver and Chris Wood use the album to demonstrate their musical evolution. Employing the versatile drummer and percussionist Jano Rix, Kingdom in My Mind captures the energy the group cultivates in their live performances. Yet the album itself is a mixed bag. While musically and instrumentally strong, some of the lyrics are problematic. Kingdom in My Mind invites listeners to come jam-out, as long as the lyrics aren’t carefully scrutinized.
“Alabaster”, the album’s opener, imagines the life of an unnamed woman who spurns her hometown of Alabaster, Alabama. The narrative moves between the perspective of two figures, evoking a contrast between the old and the new. In terms of the former, the Wood Brothers contextualize the disconnect experienced by her “old man” who “tried to harness the anger / Last thing he’d do is / Try to understand her.” Particularly befuddling to this character is the unnamed woman’s penchant for independence and agency. As she widens the literal and figurative distance, she “becomes her own master”. On the one hand, when considering contemporary Alabama and its regressive gender and racial ideologies, the track is packed with promise and disdain. On the other hand, it is important to question whether these lyrics are an essentialist reading of the state and perhaps unintentionally supporting stereotypes.
Whereas “Alabaster” flirts with the progressive, the Wood Brothers miss the mark elsewhere on the album. “The One I Love” is deeply problematic as a woman of color is reduced to a sexualized object. The song opens with the oppressive lyrics, “Dominican girl half my age / satin skin laughing face / Star white smile and strong brown legs.” Fingers crossed she’s of consenting age, but the use of the term girl is not reassuring. This woman is a mere sex object, not even fit for intimacy and companionship since the lyrics contrast her with a dutiful wife, cast as “the one I love”. Notably, the Dominican girl is undeserving of love, only lust. Unsurprisingly, the one he loves is white, with “green eyes glimmer long red hair / Freckles nose high cheeks so fair.” The contrast between a sexualized woman of color, the temptress, and a loved white woman, the virtue, hearkens back to the antebellum era. The progressive ideologies signified in “Alabaster” are smothered by the problematic racial narratives in “The One I Love”.
The collective and individual ennui plaguing contemporary society is a common theme addressed throughout Kingdom in My Mind. For the Wood Brothers, being “broken” is certainly a mindset provoking urgency, but it’s not irreconcilable. In “Cry Over Nothing”, the band contrasts the individual’s desolation, “I break down when it’s rainin’ / Fall apart when I get bored” with a collective fear of violence, “The world is broken sick and tired / So many bullets crooks and liars.” Yet the feelings of alienation and otherness are mitigated by the double negative in the lyric “I don’t cry over nothing.” There lies the resilience required to endure contemporary hardship.
Coping with the brokenness is reaffirmed in “Little Bit Broken.” Here the lyrics find affinity and solidarity in everyone’s inability to deal. The band finds strength in the desolation, exclaiming, “I should wear my scars / Like medals of gold…everybody is a little bit broken / And it’s alright.” The Wood Brothers encapsulate the belief that brokenness is the norm, but rebuilding is achievable. It’s not always easy to manage, but the solace is possible, especially in the arms of a lover, as suggested on “Don’t Think About My Death”.
Recorded in their Nashville based studio, Kingdom in My Mind is musically eclectic and reflective of the diverse musical culture saturating the region. “Little Bit Sweet” is quintessential Americana. Oliver’s vocals produce an engaging counterpoint to the harmonized chorus, all the while punctuated by a lofty guitar. Rix’s percussion is show-stopping. “Jitterbug Love” is evocative of back-porch folk while “Cry Over Nothing” is seeped in Southern gospel music. Over the years, and through their celebrated live performances, the Wood Brothers have demonstrated their penchant for a fluid musical sound. Unequivocally, Kingdom in My Mind finds strength in its freewheeling musical experimentation.