Progress? Bah … who needs it?
That’s certainly the feeling of the working class folks who populate Slaid Cleaves’ songs, and is likely shared by the singer-songwriter too. While he might not be laboring in a dead end job, Cleaves clearly understands the isolation of those that do, singing about their frustrations, futilities and disappointments in a smooth, easygoing voice that nevertheless captures the hopeless feelings of so many Americans.
Look no further than the album’s title or the bleak sepia-toned cover photo of bare trees alongside an empty highway to understand this is not going to be the disc you throw on to liven up your next party. Cleaves’ eighth studio release comes four years after his previous under-the-radar gem, 2013’s Still Fighting the War, but little has changed in his rather gloomy world view.
“I don’t need to read the papers or the TV to understand/ that this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand” he sings atop a modified reggae beat, and that dour outlook extends to most of these dozen songs. There’s a Springsteen/James McMurtry defiant, driving strum to rockers like the opening “Already Gone” (not the Eagles tune), where he sings “over and over we try and we fail/ to figure out this game we’re all in,” and a tough Old 97s vibrato twang to “Take Home Pay” (“we’re all scrapping for the Do Re Mi” he sings, referencing Woody Guthrie, a philosophical influence).
But most of the tunes stay on lower boil, the better to absorb Cleaves’ sharp, concise and often revelatory word play. He generally sings in the first person; of a reflective loner who has seen his share of pain, appreciating yet almost dismissing a sunnier personality in a woman on the melancholy “If I Had a Heart.” He then cherishes the warmth and intimacy of a long-time relationship on the “So Good to Me,” one of the disc’s few instances of pure positivity set to an appropriately jaunty melody.
More often Cleaves sings of broken souls yearning for something … romance in the bittersweet “To Be Held,” and to have his son appreciate the old car he restored with love over the years in “Primer Gray.” Mostly though, songs such as “Little Guys” deal with losing what he sees as the good old days of small town America to technology and the increasingly chilly dominance of big business.
It may not be tilling new ground, especially for him, but Cleaves brings such warmth, tenderness and humanity to his songs that you’ll be hanging on his words and getting lost in the worlds of characters most of us are familiar with.
In many cases they may even be us.