Saturday, March 26, 2016

City and Colour - If I Should Go Before You

At this point, my love for City and Colour's debut album, the 2005 bummer parade that was Sometimes, is fairly well documented. It's hard for me to write about that album or any of the music from singer/songwriter Dallas Green in a way that is logical or rational, just because that first record was so, so personal to me. Sometimes turns 10 this year, and I haven't even decided whether or not I want to open that can of worms for a decade retrospective. Suffice to say that some things are better being left in the past. Yet here I am anyway, putting pen to paper for Dallas Green's fifth album under the City and Colour moniker, simply because some musical bonds never fade.

The album in question, called If I Should Go Before You, is something I wish wholeheartedly that I enjoyed more. I don't tend to be someone who bashes a band or artist for not making the same record twice, and I genuinely do respect Dallas Green for taking his City and Colour project away from the acoustic confessionals of Sometimes and toward different avenues. His last album, 2013's The Hurry and the Harm, was a criminally underrated venture that tackled Laurel Canyon folk influences in a very pleasing way. This new album places the lens instead on Nashville, and comes out as Green's most countrified work yet. These are all things that I should enjoy, particularly since two-thirds of my top 30 albums this year will probably be from the country, folk, or Americana genres.

But Green, who briefly regained the ability to move me with Hurry after making his worst album with 2011's Little Hell, seems to have mostly missed my wavelength once again with If I Should Go Before You. With Sometimes, Green was a guy who wrote and sang songs almost completely built on pathos. The production was sparse, the arrangements were entirely acoustic, and Green's angelic tenor voice had a roughness to it that's been lost with the glossy albums he's been making since. On a lot of levels, Sometimes wasn't anything special: just an album that some heartbroken kid could have written and recorded in his bedroom. It was like a sadder, darker, and more Canadian version of Swiss Army Romance.

But those songs fucking hit, man. They cut like knives. Or scissors. Or both, to reference a pair of the album's best songs. When I listen back today, that album still makes my heart beat a little bit faster, just because the raw emotions of those songs captured so perfectly what I was feeling at a certain time. On one hand, it would be impossible for me to ever connect with another City and Colour album on that level again. Just like I know Jimmy Eat World will never hook me quite like they did with Futures, just like I know Andrew McMahon will never quite recapture the magic of Everything in Transit, I know that Sometimes was so important during a specific moment of my life that Green can't feasibly top it, at least not for me.

Unfortunately, If I Should Go Before You often makes me feel like Green isn't even trying to top it. Sometimes killed me because, when I heard the lyrics, I repeatedly found myself in disbelief at the words he was singing and the way he was singing them. They felt honest. Unguarded. Lived in. Here, we get a constant parade of lazy, clichéd rhymes that feel like cardboard cutout versions of the genuine emotions Dallas was singing about on Sometimes. "Crying out for more, just a little more/Tied down to the floor like a prisoner of war," he sings on "Wasted Love." "Finally free from the past/How long could a feeling like this last?" he mewls on the repetitious "Runaway." "Bound for trouble from the start/I've been walking through this old world in the dark," he croons on "Lover Come Back." This is high school-level poetry with no depth, but worse than that, it's lost the lived-in feel that made the Sometimes songs special.

To be fair, Green has never exactly been Sam Beam. He's always written lyrics with simple, predictable rhyme schemes and blunt, easy-to-interpret themes. But when he sang something like "My body aches, and it hurts to sing, and no one is moving/And I wish that I weren't here tonight/But this is my life" in "Hello, I'm in Delaware," it had this piercing desperation to it that made it sound like Dallas was going to explode if he didn't get those words out. In contrast, most of the songs on If I Should Go Before You feel like trinkets that he sat down and wrote in 20 minutes.

The best thing that can be said for the majority of this record is that it sounds great. It's not difficult to see why Green enjoys working with the full band, and this record might host his most gorgeous arrangements yet. From the surging George Harrison-style guitars of "Lover Don't Come Back" or the admittedly wonderful "Mizzy C," to the whining pedal steel on "Friends," there are a slew of gorgeous musical moments on this album. Even on the weak songs—like the bland, hookless "Killing Time"—the electric guitar work is downright explosive.

The problem is, Green's songwriting here simply isn't up to par with the artists he's trying to imitate. Alt-country—the genre to which If I Should Go Before You most accurately belongs—is a genre built on strong lyricism and storytelling. Neither are present for the majority of this record, and the result is an album that pales in comparison to what it should be. As such, the Nashville sound—while it suits Green, his voice, and his musicality well enough—ends up doing him a disservice, simply because I can't imagine a time when I'm going to reach for this album instead of a more lyrically revealing album from the same genre. Recent records from guys like Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Will Hoge feature similar sonic and musical touches, but delve deeper lyrically and beat Dallas in the one area in which he used to most excel: emotion.

Still, it's tough to write off If I Should Go Before You entirely, if only for the strength of its final track. After spending most of the album going full tilt on the full-band thing—occasionally indulgently so, as on the disastrous nine-plus-minute album opener, "Woman"—Green finally goes back to basics on track 11. The song, a spartan acoustic lullaby called "Blood," is reminiscent of Sometimes in all of the best ways. Evocative, atmospheric, aching, and beautiful, "Blood" is a perfect song, and it proves that—when he's not phoning it in—Dallas Green can still write material that provides a well-placed punch to the gut.

I don't want to just come right out and say that Dallas Green should make another stripped down acoustic record, since it's clear from his past three album that he's passionate about making music with a full band. "Blood" also isn't the only good song on If I Should Go Before You. The aforementioned "Mizzy C" might have one of Green's catchiest choruses; "Lover Come Back" is solid '90s-style folk-pop; "Wasted Love" is a guitar-driven dynamo—even despite a rather grating chorus; and "Friends" has a dusky highway-bound feel to it that makes it a fitting penultimate track. But "Blood" makes it abundantly clear that just about every hallmark of Green's music—his delicate tenor voice, his plainspoken lyrics, his haunting vocal melodies, the reverb-heavy production style—is better suited to sparse acoustic recordings than to big full-band arrangements. Just like "Take Care" from the last record, it's not a coincidence that the best song on this album is the one that most closely recalls the way Dallas Green used to make music. And that's the thing about being a City and Colour fan: I want to appreciate Green's new stylistic directions, but it's hard to do when he keeps serving up reminders of how good he can be when he works with less.

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