The troubadour glut
Keaton Henson is a 24-year-old British singer–songwriter who resembles a yeoman minstrel – full beard, Jesus hair, waif-thin frame enveloped in jumbo-knit pullovers. His debut album Dear … consists of ten mournful laments about his ex-girlfriend sung in a quavering semi-falsetto, recorded in his bedroom in London to the lone accompaniment of his own spidery guitar chordings. Since Henson began posting his self-made music videos on the internet last year – one of them features a three-minute close-up of a Jane Eyre–like figure standing on a moor in bonnet and house-dress, weeping – his backstory has rippled across the web. He’s a poet and an illustrator, a fragile type plagued by crippling panic attacks. He can only perform alone, sans audience, in secret locations such as a one-man tent rigged out with lighting and video cameras, for online broadcast.
Henson is managed by the same team who handle Radiohead, and has an interactive website that allows you to flick through one of his adolescent notebooks and buy his debut graphic novel, Gloaming, or maybe a Keaton Henson T-shirt emblazoned with the handwritten inscription ‘Keaton Henson T-Shirt’. He has reputedly written 200 songs detailing his heartache, so we’re likely to hear a lot more from him. Personally, I am not looking forward to that. There are already so many earnest young men plying their trade in nu-folk, alt-country Americana and sundry ancillary genres that we’re reaching the limits of our capacity to absorb their collective angst. And that’s not even accounting for the female half of the equation, whose output demands a separate assessment.
Troubadours are sensitive souls, which is why critics tend to go easy on them. Their path to public recognition was once a hard road littered with many obstacles: record companies controlled the music business, studio producers ruled the recording process and rock critics wielded enormous clout. But now technology has obliterated the need for these meddling middlemen: every home is a recording studio, every singer–songwriter has an online shop, and every blogger can be a published critic with a niche enthusiasm. Maybe it’s churlish to quibble about this democratic redistribution of power, but it’s a fact that the old feudal system somehow gave us a halcyon era of songwriting, from Dylan through to the British folk boom, the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 1970s and the outlaw-country insurgency in the South. Who among the new generation measures up to that legacy?
Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Palace, is the doyen of the current bunch, the man who laid the template for a new kind of handcrafted, studiously artless folk aesthetic. Oldham’s multiple stage names marked a generational break from the notion of the singer–songwriter as autobiographical confessor; an actor before he became a singer, he devised the faux archaically named character Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (note the inverted commas, denoting added irony) as a role. Judging from the critical adoration that has rained down on his oeuvre – which now runs to 50-odd albums and EPs under various monikers over 20 years – I may be the only person in existence who finds Oldham’s querulous singing, oblique lyrics and fragile melodies barely more than an ephemeral pleasure. The man’s genius escapes me, but a wave of pseudonymous folksters have come up in his wake, among them Smog (Bill Callahan), Iron & Wine (Sam Beam), The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle), Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst) and M (as in Matthew) Ward.
The DIY approach they share favours low-budget recordings for small indie labels, away from the stifling demands of record company A&R dudes, big-name producers or anyone else with their finger near the edit button. Wading through their back catalogues can be a major undertaking: Callahan alone has released around 30 albums and EPs since 1993, most employing a spare, rustic musical setting over which he recites head-scratching lyrics in a deadpan baritone. Here are the opening lines to a recent song called ‘Too Many Birds’:
Too many birds in one tree
Too many birds in one tree
And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves
The sky is full of black and screaming [pause]
And one more bird
Then one more bird
And one last bird
The New York Times calls him “one of our best lyricists”.
Given that hardly anyone under 30 actually pays for recorded music anymore, one might argue no great crime is being committed – not every songwriter aspires to be Dylan, or even Guy Clark. What’s unseemly is the profligate doling out of four-star reviews by rock critics, who, as a breed, are notoriously susceptible to any songwriter who brings a whiff of literary cred to their disreputable world. Last year Gareth Liddiard, the lead singer of The Drones, received rapturous notices and an ARIA nomination for his album Strange Tourist, a collection of acoustic dirges recorded solo in a country house. Liddiard is a highly literate writer, and on Strange Tourist he crams his songs with so much novelistic detail that they stretch out for eight or nine minutes. I was halfway through the album’s magnum opus – a 16-minute re-imagination of the life of David Hicks – before I realised that it doesn’t actually have a chorus, or a tune to speak of. In an earlier era, some porcine record exec would no doubt have demanded that Liddiard go back and write a couple of songs for FM radio. I’m beginning to miss those days.
All of which is a long-winded way of arguing a case for Tennessee singer–songwriter Justin Townes Earle. At 30, Earle is a traditionalist whose first three albums worked familiar country/blues conventions, but on his 2010 album Harlem River Blues he stepped up with ten strong and memorable songs that pushed him into earthier rhythm’n’blues territory – there were horns, organ, a gospel chorus – and showed off his maturing voice. The songs tackled familiar tropes in fresh ways – a train-driver’s lament was relocated to the New York subway; the chugging singalong title track was narrated by a guy heading uptown to Harlem to kill himself – and the desolate loneliness of ‘Rogers Park’ certainly didn’t sound like character acting.
Earle came to music lugging baggage heavy enough to sink a lesser man: his father is Steve Earle, the singer/actor/activist/author, and he’s named after Townes Van Zandt, arguably the greatest songwriter to come out of the American South in the past half-century. Van Zandt died in 1997 after a lifelong pursuit of self-annihilation that included playing Russian roulette and throwing himself off a fourth-floor balcony; Steve Earle spent most of his early career (that is, most of his son’s childhood) in the grip of a heroin habit that destroyed several marriages and landed him in jail before he re-emerged to become a formidable figure in American roots music. So it may be no great surprise that Earle junior careened through a decade of substance abuse and got himself fired from his father’s band before he managed to record his first album in 2007.
Since Harlem River Blues he’s been through rehab (again) and emerged with a fifth album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Recorded live in the studio with a small band, it builds on his new sound with horn arrangements and organ swells that mimic the light touch of Al Green’s 1970s recordings. The best of its songs are indelibly tuneful even as they dive into the mess of Earle’s life and family background. The opening track, ‘Am I That Lonely Tonight?’, finds him driving through the mountains at night, staring at oncoming headlights through the mist as his father’s voice comes over the car radio, raising old ghosts. A song later, he’s broke and back in his hometown, walking toward his mother in the main street and watching her turn away. Earle’s voice, plaintive and slightly husky, sounds more confident than ever, breaking just in the right places and occasionally evoking the rawer edge of white soul singers such as Eddie Hinton.
Good as his last two albums have been, it’s on stage that Earle displays his true stature, as he proved on his last run through Australia in March. A lanky six-footer, he exudes a cockeyed energy that’s hard to drag your eyes away from, leaning into the mic at odd angles and throwing arms-akimbo shapes like Hank Williams. Sporting silver-rimmed specs, a carnival barker’s plaid jacket, blue business shirt, striped tie and crumpled linen pants, he looked like a juvenile offender dressed for a court appearance, and between songs he lunged for his water bottle, fidgeted, scratched, rubbed the back of his head and drawled rueful stories of his various travails before leaping into the next song as if on sudden impulse.
The show really ignited when his double-bassist and acoustic guitar/mandolin player left the stage and Earle hurled himself into an electrifying version of the blues chestnut ‘My Starter Won’t Start’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins. Whamming his thumb down hard on the bass notes, Earle’s fervour seemed almost a statement of defiance – the song has long been a stage favourite of his father and his namesake, for whom Hopkins was a touchstone. From there he plunged into a brace of new songs traversing the family stuff (“This new record is chock-full of mom-and-dad issues,” he cracked) and for good measure encored with a mesmeric rendering of one of Van Zandt’s greatest odes to high-lonesome existential despair, ‘Rex’s Blues’. Then he gave a goofy grin and tripped off into the wings, hopefully for a mint tea and a good night’s slumber.