The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016â€™s Blue Healer is now turned inward, with a dramatic album that finds Mathus moving from guitar to piano, and enriching his musical brew with space. Space for the vocals and lyrics, and space for instrumental backings that arenâ€™t exactly spare, but often stray from the thick gumbo of his earlier albums. He ranges easily and authoritatively through Americana, folk, country, R&B, rock and electric swamp, turning his lyrics inward to explore the underpinnings of his own artistic life. The songs often drift into being, as though Mathus is gathering his thoughts as he addresses the microphone; heâ€™s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. Thereâ€™s an immediacy in this approach that casts a new light on his earlier records, suggesting they may have been more of an outward manifestation of the internal truths he mines here.
Some of these personal revelations are delivered directly in the lyrics, but elsewhere, such as the title track, poetic images are rendered with expressive singing and backed by instrumentals that essay mood rather than narrative. The basic revelation of â€œReally Hurt Someoneâ€ is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkinsâ€™ â€œI Put a Spell on You.â€ The drifting piano and backing chorale of â€œBeen Unravellingâ€ add a meditative counterpoint to a palpably lonely vocal – as if Joe Cocker was fronting the Friends-era Beach Boys. Mathus turns to an R&B groove for â€œSunk a Little Loa,â€ swampy electric blues for â€œAlligator Fish,â€ trad-jazz for the story song â€œJack Told the Devil,â€ boozy C&W on â€œSouth of Laredo,â€ and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrixâ€™s â€œAngelâ€ on â€œSunken Road.â€
A sad, brilliant gem of early â€˜70s singer-songwriter country
Talent and hard work arenâ€™t always enough. They can pave the path, but fame is at the end of a road pockmarked with â€œtimingâ€ and â€œconnectionsâ€ and â€œluck.â€ And though hard luck provides grist for the artistic mill, it can also keep a career from catching fire. Such was the case for Louisville singer-songwriter Denny Lile, whose talent, ambition and artistic brilliance werenâ€™t fully rewarded by the popular recognition they deserved. Other than a song turned into a 1987 Top 10 Waylon Jennings hit (â€œFallinâ€™ Outâ€), Lileâ€™s music, including this long-lost 1973 solo album, were consigned to virtual obscurity. His hometown renown brought feelers from New York and Nashville labels, but the sensitivity that made his songwriting so touching also fueled the alcoholism and self-doubt that sabotaged his career.
Lile wended his way through a number of Louisville bands, including Soul Inc. and Elysian Field, before striking a deal for this solo album. At only twenty-two years of age, his voice was decades older, with the weary, wary confidence of someone whoâ€™d logged more miles on his soul than his feet. His singing offered elements of Jim Croceâ€™s melancholy, Gram Parsonsâ€™ grief, and, unusually in this company, Neil Diamondâ€™s power; but even among those monumental touchstones, it was the candid voice of his lyrics that really stood out. Backed by guitar, fiddle, steel, dobro and a tight rhythm section of bass, drums and piano, Turley Richardsâ€™ productions of â€œHear the Bangâ€ and â€œIf You Stay on Solid Groundâ€ garnered a well-deserved offer from Hilltop Records; but while Turley was selling the single in New York, Lile signed with the local Bridges label, in a deal that would haunt him to his 1995 death.
Bridgesâ€™ distribution agreement with Nashvilleâ€™s Starday-King did little to help the single or subsequent album gain traction, and both disappeared without much more than local notice. Itâ€™s hard to imagine in this hyperconnected, digital age that an album this good could vanish so completely, but Lileâ€™s deal had surrendered both the recordings and his song publishing, and as the accompanying DVD documentary explains, it took more than four decades to untangle the rights and find the tapes. Once revived, the tapes revealed productions that are crisp and spacious – the sort of record that made your mid-70s stereo system shine – and performances that hold listeners in thrall with their confused and wounded heart. And that heart, Lileâ€™s heart, was worn quite visibly on his sleeve as he sings of loving, leaving and being left.
Lile found that fading love doesnâ€™t always fade evenly, and that its slow decay may not even be noticed until realizations are past due and apologies are rejected. Resignation to sad truths permeated Lileâ€™s life, and in turn, his best songs. It led him to recoil from opportunity and sabotage possibilities for success. By the time his solo album was ready he said â€œEvery time Iâ€™ve tried to get out of town – with Field, with Soul – somethingâ€™s gone wrong. Every time I turn around an older musician is telling me his plan for making it. But nothing so far has worked. I think itâ€™s better not to plan.â€ That feeling of futility suffused his songwriting, even as he spent years honing his lyrics and melodies to perfection.
The productions include many terrific touches, including congas on â€œIf You Stay on Solid Groundâ€ and phased fiddles on â€œRag Muffin,â€ and there are several optimistic songs of love on the horizon (â€œSheâ€™s More to Me Than a Friendâ€ and â€œAfter Allâ€) and in full bloom (â€œOh Darlingâ€ and â€œRag Muffinâ€). But itâ€™s the sad songs that will haunt you, especially after youâ€™ve viewed the accompanying biographical documentary. â€œWill You Hate Me When Iâ€™m Goneâ€ offers a prophetic echo as Lileâ€™s daughter speaks of his passing, and â€œAfter Allâ€ could be a memo from Lile to himself as he sings â€œso tell me how youâ€™re feeling today, tell me if I got in your way.â€ As the documentary shows, Lileâ€™s alcoholism often got in his way as the industry tried to help him capitalize on his talent.
Lile had a knack for sabotaging himself, starting with his momentum-killing solo contract, and extending through numerous fumbled opportunities. Worries about his marriage and his duty as a father – a hangover from his parents divorce – kept him from touring, and a chance to play FanFest in 1973 fell prey to one-too-many nerve-calming drinks. Follow-up meetings with Waylon Jenningsâ€™ staff also suffered from the rough shape in which his alcoholism often left him. Even an accident that landed him in the hospital with broken bones and a lacerated liver didnâ€™t deter his drinking. His world narrowed to a home studio purchased with the royalties from Jenningsâ€™ single, and then to a custom van in which he lived the last few years of his life. He died alone in the van, estranged from his family, at the age of 44.