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John Moreland

LP5 – 2020 (Old Omens/Thirty Tigers)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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CDs by John Moreland

John Moreland's plain, unpretentious title indicates more of the same, but those of you (most of you most likely) expecting another batch of great, but deeply sad songs may find a few surprises on "LP 5." Part of this small shift may be that it marks the first time he's worked with an outside producer, in this case, Matt Pence (Jason Isbell, The Breeders, Sarah Jaffe). Also, his recent marriage likely plays into it too. It also moves away from his previous stripped- down work, this time with a small band behind him. Pence is on drums with Bonnie Whitmore (bass, vocals) and his long-time cohort, multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney.

Moreland points to being kinder to himself, being less self-critical and being more willing to experiment with different sounds as he made the record. The sound remains sparse, just more layered and textured and a bit unpredictable as in the quirky wah-wah guitar in the slow blues of "A Thought Is Just a Passing Train." "All the gods are watching wars on television" is the eerie, frighteningly in-the-moment beginning to the opening "Harder Dreams," expressing a disbelief in life. This confessional mode appears again in "Terrestrial" with the line "As a child I repented my nature, till as a man, I repented my past."

The singalong chorus, harmonies from Whitmore, and swelling organ make "East October" a clear highlight. The song owes to the passing of Moreland's friend, Chris Porter, a singer-songwriter who died on the road in 2016 and had penned a tune "East December." "In the Times Between" was written for Porter within two weeks of Porter's passing and, as such, reflects pain and deep admiration. "I'm Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth" has some wry humor, some tenderness and ultimately comes off gorgeously as does the similarly sounding "I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground."

He wrote "When My Fever Breaks" for his wife, having started it three years ago when they were dating, finally reaching a point where he was comfortable with a love song. The instrumentation from Abney and Whitmore's harmonies provide sparkling, light punctuations behind Moreland's deep, gravelly baritone. The harmonica-driven closer, "Let Me Be Understood" follows one of two lilting instrumentals, "For Ichiro," and will invariably be compared to Springsteen's "Nebraska" sound. If that's the lasting comparison, so be it. Moreland's writing is every bit as strong. This may be his best yet.