As universal as the grieving process for a lost love is, there is also something very personal about it -- the details of courtship, the secret dialogue between lovers, the delicate dance towards disassociation and, afterwards, the regret, the aching regret despite knowing it’s all somehow for the best.
Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. The Cure’s Disintegration. The Civil Wars’ eponymous swan song.
The break-up album is a tested form that crosses time and genre and lends us a yardstick by which we might measure an artist and songwriter’s potential based on how he or she fares in such well-traveled and emotionally choppy waters. John Calvin Abney’s debut full-length release, Better Luck, takes on these expectations while providing enough unexpected diversions along the way, both musically and lyrically, to keep us guessing as to its outcome.
The first side kicks off with the sassy “Stepladder,” bringing us in at the end of the story as Abney declares his freedom from the sense of self-doubt that follows a break-up. The raucous backing track is met with Abney taking a rare excursions on the electric guitar, equal parts Neil Young and Mike Campbell, and a whip-tight arrangement that leaves the listener hungry for more.
That euphoric high quickly wears off as the second track, “Scarecrow” opens with a Dylan-esque fingerpicked intro and a mournful melody. The second verse brings in the whole band as Abney weaves a rich tapestry of accompaniment held aloft by the subdued but insistent snare drum cadences.
“I Can’t Choose” juxtaposes a rollicking country back beat and rich orchestration (including piano, B3 and harmonica) against the agony of not knowing the best path forward. Desi Roses’s (Desi and Cody) sweet harmonies on the chorus dilute some of the song’s bite, transforming it into one of the most broadly accessible moments of the album.
The sardonic, yet sparse title track bristles with symbolism, the secret code of the co-habitators strewn along its course like hints for a scavenger hunt of the heart. A honky-tonk blues in six, “Dallas City Lights” showcases the band’s ability to carve out empty spaces in the arrangements only to watch it flood with melody as the song unspools.
Better Luck reaches its first musical climax with the enigmatic “Sirens,” a song rich with harmonic movement met by a thoughtful arrangement that brings the band in and out at the perfect emotional moments. Drummer Peter Labberton (M. Lockwood Porter) makes his presence most memorably felt here, contributing not only the pulse that drives the song but auxillary percussion parts that define its sonic DNA.
“Cut the Rope” is an moody, minor blues with a country swing to it. The slightly overdriven vocal imparts the song with a sinister edge in line with the macabre entendre of the song’s title and hook. “James and Julie” relies Abney’s talents as a one-man band as he spins a yarn of melancholy working-class love that is observational while retaining a tinge of surrealism at its perimeter.
“Gold Silver” is sustained by a lyric delivered in a half-whisper. A melody that entangles and disentangles from a swampy blues riff until it is swallowed up by a moody modal psychedelia that doesn’t end so much as it dissolves under the weight of its own dissonance.
It is perfectly counterbalanced by the hymn-like sincerity of “Museums” -- Abney’s vulnerable lyrics supported by his piano accompaniment. The sparse guitar provides us with a momentary sense of lift on the chorus before Abney opens the door to his already lost love, “If you feel like you have to leave, honey, that’s fine.”
“Dark Horse Army” closes the record out with a pulsing alt-rock groove that suggests we’re finally seeing the end of the tunnel, even if its equal measures of frustration and determination to change that will carry us to our final destination.
Better Luck is an album that reveals itself in full with repeated spins on the turntable. A self-indicted perfectionist, Abney puts his faith in his band and his vision to capture authentic moments on tape and the effort pays off big by the close of the final side.
Expertly co-produced at Tiny Telephones studio by engineer Jacob Winik, collaborator John Moreland and Abney, this collection of songs, captured in nine days, stand as more than just a document of a time in Abney’s life that is now behind him.
Better Luck is an ambitious introduction to John Calvin Abney’s many and considerable talents and, without a doubt, an compelling opening chapter to his songwriting and recording career that demands another before the last notes of the album fade.