Dark reflections from a troubled troubadour.
Ben de la Cour seems to tick all the boxes for the troubled troubadour blueprint….addictions (alcohol and opiates). Check. Heavy touring schedules. Check. Rehab. Check. Mental health issues/psychiatric institutions. Check. But most importantly of all, the ability to tell of these experiences in a colourfully graphic and entertaining set of songs. Check.
First things first….‘Shadow Land’ is not an upbeat happy folk and blues album. Subject matter includes bank robbery, religious zealotry, murder, prostitution, corporate greed, the impact of booze and drugs and suicide. This is a dark album. But it is a good dark album. De la Cour’s ability to spin tales from these topics and make them enjoyable is a rare skill and it is this writing ability that shines through. Excellent opener ‘God’s Only Son’ all twangy guitar and solo whistling that could have been taken straight from a spaghetti western, along with a wildly shrieking fiddle, tells of a God obsessed bank robber who crosses his partner in the ultimate way… ”Johnny folded there in the backseat/Like a blood-soaked dollar bill”. But has the obsession been worth it?
‘High Heels Down The Holler’ is a deep blues number – accurately described as Appalachian gothic – which has more screeching fiddle dancing across thick heavy guitar. Still dark. ‘The Last Chance Farm’ feels like things are about to lighten, but then this is the tale of de la Cour’s first day in rehab, where an inmate chastises him… ”I swear to God, I’d give my first born for a beer/Jerry said you wouldn’t talk like that if they took yours away”. How do you think Jerry ended up there in the first instance? Corporate greed comes in for a bashing next, ‘In God We Trust…All Others Pay Cash’ with lots of excellent blues guitar, followed by the gentle, almost fragile ‘Amazing Grace (Slight Return)’, although lines like “A bullet through the head is just a cry for help/So everybody figures Tucker shot himself” do not reflect the fragility of the guitar, piano and cello supporting the lyric.
‘Basin Lounge’ lets loose with a boogie-woogie rocker of a song, all Jerry Lee piano, crashing drums and scowling guitars, great fun. The title track is gentle guitar, piano and harmonica and makes great reference to “The Revolutionary Suicide Jazz Band” and the opening line of ‘Swan Dive’ – “Joey bounced like a brick from the fourteenth floor window” continues that theme. Further reflections on an addiction past are revealed in ‘Harmless Indian Medicine Blues’ (opium addiction), heavy and deep slide guitar, and ‘Valley of the Moon’ (alcohol), where guitars and cello provide an almost psychedelic backdrop.
This is a soul-bearing, fearless album, almost challenging. The mix of folk, blues, and rockier numbers keeps the collection interesting, but above all it is the quality of the writing and storytelling, albeit dark, that makes it worthwhile.