Slaid Cleaves: Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away

slaidcleaves_everythingyouloveDevastating album of anguished folk, rock and country

Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves returns with an album of Americana whose quiet beauty belies lyrics of deep resignation. Just as Springsteen’s anthems can obscure his bite, Cleaves presents his songs with an offhandedness that, on the surface, offsets the despondency of his words. The angst of love’s vulnerability, the political, social and economic polarization of a new gilded age, and the human misery of war are just a few topics that lead Cleaves to close with the fatalistic proscription “live well and learn to die, soon in the dust you’ll lie, with everything you know / Cruel death will not spare, the wise the young or fair, let’s drain this cup of woe.” The album is titled Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, after all.

Cleaves sings with a warmth that infuses an element of hope in the crushing blows he delivers. Is there hard-won pain or only a clever couplet in singing “Every man is a myth, every woman a dream / Watch your little heart get crushed when the truth gets in between”? Is there bitterness or repudiation in “Here comes another blown up kid from over there / Making the whole world safe for the millionaires”? Probably a bit of each. The deftness with which he explicates characters in a perfectly framed, heartbreaking moment is breathtaking; he highlights the comfort and torment memories create in a war widow with the lyric, “I lose a little bit of myself with each tear I wipe away,” and captures the humanity of hookers in their attempt to keep warm on a Christmas Eve stroll.

Even when singing in the first person, Cleaves is more of an observer than a participant, and when he reports, it’s with a keen eye. His story of an old-time hanging, “Twistin’,” is an uncomfortably business-as-usual outing that connects to a devastatingly modern indictment. His quiet vocal lets the horrors speak for themselves, with corporal drum and moaning fiddle standing as characters. His cover of Ray Bonneville’s “Run Jolee Run” cycles from hunted to hunter and back to hunted, and the romantic of “Dreams” wonders “where do all your dreams go to, when it all starts to turn untrue / what is all your wishing for, when you don’t believe in dreams anymore?”

The album winds down with a bitter critique of politicians, global industrialists and sleepwalking media, somehow managing to retain a belief in the goodness of man. The closer, “Temporary,” resigns itself to existential impermanence. The magic of this album is how appealing Cleaves and his producer, Gurf Morlix, make such downbeat material. The arrangements are spare and quiet, the tempos deliberate, and though Cleaves is in his mid-forties, his voice retains a youthful tone that’s slightly scratched at the top end of his range. This is the most absorbing album Cleaves has recorded so far, and a strong contender for album-of-the-year honors. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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