Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Album of the Day: Josh Abbott Band - Front Row Seat

Okay, so an intro: I want to get back to blogging more over here, and writing shorter bits of content in addition to what I've been doing at AbsolutePunk.net. With that in mind, I'm launching an "album of the day" series where I'll give recommendations of new albums that I'm really digging or old favorites that jump back into my rotation on any given day. Or new discoveries from years past. There's a good chance that I won't post every day, but I will try to keep up with it and shine a light on more albums (and hopefully, more unheralded albums) than I've been able to do just writing long form reviews. I didn't get a chance to write about a lot of my favorite albums and EPs from last year, just because there was so much stuff that I fell in love with. I hope that, with this series, I will be able to chart my year of listening a bit more comprehensively.

To start this series, I'm featuring Front Row Seat, an album that Texas country stalwarts the Josh Abbott Band released in November of last year. This is a record that an AbsolutePunk user recommended to me in the thread for my Best of 2015 list, which means that it didn't make it onto that list. However, after spending a lot of time with this album over the past week or so, it probably would crack any revisited top 30 I might compile for the year. Ever-changing lists: such is the life of a music fan.

Front Row Seat starts out as a bright, mainstream-leaning country record. The hooks are big, the fiddles sparkle like sunlight, and the lyrics are about stuff like drinking with your buds, falling in love, and making every second the night count. The opening track, "While I'm Young," is a pretty standard boy-meets-girl-in-a-bar story, the kind of story that we've heard from a million different country songs at this point in time.

The difference with "While I'm Young" is that it isn't the whole story, but just the start of it. For Front Row Seat, frontman Josh Abbott decided to go the autobiographical route, charting his entire relationship with his wife--from their meeting to their divorce--over the course of a five-act, 16-song LP. So while this album starts with the euphoria of falling in love, that's not where it stays.

The first eight or nine songs on this record are uplifting and invigorating, perfectly capturing the electricity of meeting someone who you know is going to be incredibly important in your story. "Live it While You Got It" is a send-up of taking chances and being adventurous with the person you love, while "Wasn't That Drunk" sees two lovers (with the female perspective personified by a note-perfect feature from up-and-comer Carly Pearce) allowing the lowered inhibitions of a wine-drenched night to finally kickstart a romance they've both been yearning for. The title track, meanwhile, is the album's centerpiece, a big-hearted, big-chorus piece of roots-pop about how, when you fall in love with someone, you are the only person in the world who gets a front row seat to their life and to everything they do and everything they are.

With songs that feel this alive and that capture the spirit of being young and in love so perfectly, it's tough not to wish that this album could just stay in that vein for always. But on the sobering "Born to Break Your Heart," everything takes a turn for the worst, and soon, we're past the path of no return. Abbott's marriage--which was the subject of at least one of his previous albums--obliterated after he cheated on his wife, presumably while on the road and living some incarnation of the rock and roll lifestyle. The last seven tracks of this album chart the disintegration of the relationship and find Abbott wallowing in progressively deeper pits of longing and despair. On "Ghosts," you can hear him choke up right before launching into the second chorus. On "This Isn't Easy," he sings a song from his ex-wife's point of view, with clear understanding of how much he hurt her. And on "Anonymity," he closes out what began as a bright and warm Texas country record with a dark, cold acoustic heartbreaker, a song so raw and barren that it almost hurts to listen to.

We've all heard albums about falling in love before. We've all heard albums about heartbreak. What makes Front Row Seat fascinating isn't just that we get both, packed into one cohesive narrative, but also that Abbott actually stops being the protagonist midway through. Even if you go into this album not knowing that Abbott cheated on his wife, not knowing that his own unforgivable mistakes destroyed a huge part of his life, you can hear it in his voice on those last few songs that he knows he's not the hero. What makes a song like "Amnesia" so powerful is that, even as Abbott is singing about how forgetting his ex-wife entirely might be better than learning to live without her, it's so obvious that he knows he doesn't deserve "better"--whatever that is. He's in hell because he put himself there, because he drank too much and cared too little and let himself get sucked into a moment of temptation that decimated everything. This is not a "How could you do this to me?" kind of breakup record; it's a "how could I do that to you" breakup record, and it's all the more devastating as a result.

Listen to Front Row Seat here.

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