Saturday, March 26, 2016

Donovan Woods - Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled

Last year, Donovan Woods released two one-off singles in advance of his then-still-unannounced fourth studio album. The first, called "Portland, Maine," had been cut the year previous by none other than country giant Tim McGraw. The second, "That Hotel," hadn't been cut by anyone, but probably should have been. Both songs were easy contenders for the best thing Woods had ever written—an impressive accomplishment, considering the fact that Woods has become one of the best voices in folk music over the past seven or eight years. His 2010 LP, The Widowmaker, remains one of the decade's best releases in the genre, outstanding for its balance of sparse acoustic arrangements and raw, hard-hitting lyrics about lost love.

"Portland, Maine" and "That Hotel" were landmark songs for how they took the breakup song concept and looked at it in entirely new ways. The first expertly chronicled the fatigue and frustration of a long-distance relationship; the latter found its narrator in relationship purgatory, kicked out of the house by his significant other, but not yet given the final "it's over" declaration. In a way, the two songs were polar opposites. The former felt hopeless and resigned, about a couple who were ready to walk away and forget each other for good. The latter resonated with this aching optimism, the hope of a man who didn't know, yet, that his relationship was beyond saving. But both were remarkable pieces of songwriting for how they captured the dirty details of heartbreak. In an age where so many songs chronicle romance and breakups in platitudes and clichés, the characters in these two songs felt as real, organic, and vulnerable as if they were two feet away from you.

Ultimately, Woods chose to leave both "Portland, Maine" and "That Hotel" off his fourth album, titled Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled. However, the songwriting growth exhibited on those two pieces flows through this 10-song collection, Woods' best yet for how it consistently puts you in the world of his characters. "Portland, Maine" was a sea change kind of song for Woods, earning the Canadian singer/songwriter his first cut from a major Nashville artist and also marking one of his first adventures in co-writing. Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled bears the influence of both those experiences. The record is less folk and more Americana, and even ends with a song called "Leaving Nashville" that was recently cut by another major country artist. The album is also the first where Woods didn't write all of the songs himself, opting instead to work with co-writers. As it turns out, both choices were good ones for Woods, allowing him to expand his sound and perspective without losing the pathos and personality of his previous work.

I've often been critical of artists who lean too heavily on co-writers, as I think it can often dilute the authorial voice of an artist's work. But speaking with Woods a few weeks ago, I completely understood why he chose to work with other people for this record, and what it did for him that simply sitting in a room and penning every note and word himself wouldn't have. When you write song after song on your own, it's easy to fall into a rut where you are playing the same things on the guitar, singing the same basic melodies, or even getting repetitious with your storytelling and lyrics. By working with other people for six of these 10 songs, Woods was able to get out of that rut and deliver his most versatile album yet. Those new songwriting perspectives, in addition to the album's lusher instrumental textures—the forlorn fiddles and pedal steel, in particular, complement Woods' gentle vocals perfectly—make Hard Settle, Not Troubled distinct in the Donovan Woods discography.

Most importantly, the co-writers and extra instrumentation don't detract from Woods' authorial voice. On the contrary, while some of these songs have as many as three credited co-writers (in addition to Woods himself), the record still feels distinctly like the work of one artist. This isn't a hodgepodge collection of disconnected singles; instead, it's a thematic record about the struggles that normal people face in their everyday lives, and how those people cope with the challenges and derailments in their lives. In our interview, Woods joked that every song he's ever written could be a closing track on someone else's record, a self-deprecating jab at his preference for writing slow and incredibly sad songs. Most of the tunes on Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled are indeed downers. There's "The First Time," which suggests that you can't ever recapture the euphoria of first love; there's "Between Cities," another song about long distance relationships and how they fall apart; and there's "Leaving Nashville," about the many trials and tribulations that artists face while trying to find their American Dream in Music City.

But fleshing out his sound further and working with other people has also brought a buoyancy to Donovan's music that wasn't there before. Case-in-point is "On the Nights You Stay Home," a catchy, mid-tempo acoustic groover about a recently split couple who can't seem to figure out how to move on without one another. It's the closest Woods has ever come to writing a pop song. Foreboding strings break the surface on the album's skittering opener,"What Kind of Love is That," while the mid-section of "Do I Know Your Name" sparkles with swift acoustic fingerpicking and tinkling pianos in a break that sounds like it belongs on a Sufjan Stevens album. True, Woods' past albums have often been grim and heartbreaking by design, but the sparse arrangements also tended to lock his songs into a sad winterish setting. The more expansive sonic palette that's displayed on Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled makes the songs feel more welcoming and warm—even when, lyrically, they kind of aren't.

It's ultimately the lyrical work that makes Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled stick, though. Like "Portland, Maine" and "That Hotel," the three best songs on this record—"The First Time," "They Don't Make Anything in That Town," and "Leaving Nashville"—capture difficult themes in lyrically unique and interesting ways. These songs are master classes in how, sometimes, the smallest details are the ones that resonate most in a song. "In a tiny bed/When I was a friend of friend/It was all a blur/I can't say I remember it/But it's gotten so good in our minds/We'll never get as high as the first time," Woods sings on "The First Time," looking back on the naïve magic of young love. The Jason Isbell-esque "They Don't Make Anything in That Town," meanwhile, chronicles a pastiche of small town failures and heartbreaks in a way that makes the song feel like a lost Nebraska cut. In particular, the way Donovan brings the death of a friend into the song ("My friend Ryan drove full speed off a road/For him that was it, but his truck got fixed") is crushing. It's the kind of line that stops you in its tracks for how eloquently it communicates both the permanence of death and the way that life must go on—even following the loss of a loved one.

If there's a song here that's destined to skyrocket Donovan Woods into the inner circle of Nashville's most respected songwriters, though, it's "Leaving Nashville." It's a classic song about the American Dream—specifically, about "making it" in a city where literally every person seems to be chasing down the same aspirations of music stardom that you are. "One day you're the king and the next you're not/It's handshakes and whiskey shots, boy/You're throwing up in parking lots all by yourself," Woods sings in the chorus, channeling the whirlwind of promise and adversity that a career in songwriting can bring. The song paints a gritty and sometimes painful picture of being an artist in the modern world, from singing the song that means the most to you (only to find out no one is listening), to being "two weeks from sleeping in your car" but still holding onto hope regardless. The song's refrain says it all: "But I ain't never leaving Nashville." Having a dream for music in this day and age, and making it work, means staying strong and keeping hope, even when things get darkest. And this song, as heartbreaking as it is, ultimately finds a note of uplift by channeling the resilience of a lifelong dream.

"Leaving Nashville" was recently released as the closing track on the debut album from Charles Kelley, one of the singers from pop-country group Lady Antebellum. Charles' version of the song is different than Donovan's—more "defiant," perhaps, as Donovan put it in our interview. But the core of the song—the ache of the melody, the hope and heartbreak of the lyrics, and the almost zeitgeist-channeling nature of the theme—remains the same in both versions. For good reason, "Leaving Nashville" has been the most praised song on the Charles Kelley record. Reviewers, even the ones who don't love the record, have singled it out as an unquestionably great song—due as much to the writing as to Kelley's impassioned performance. With a song like that, it's only a matter of time before Donovan Woods (and Abe Stoklasa, the song's co-writer) are among the most in-demand songwriters in Nashville. Who knows, maybe Woods is the next Chris Stapleton: a songwriter's songwriter who finally gets his big payoff after years of hard work. Even if he doesn't catch a big break, though, Woods is a special talent and Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled is a special album. Don't miss out on this one just because Woods is still flying a bit under the radar.

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