A witty, vaudevillian performance effectively combining swing, rockabilly and country-rock.
‘This Heart Will Self Destruct’ comes across like the musical equivalent of a theatrical show. It has an up-tempo sound and is largely comprised of superficially happy songs, stepping brightly through a wide variety of styles. Bob Collum relocated from Tulsa to Essex, which may go some way to explaining his atypical approach to songwriting – there is an undercurrent of wry observation that is more typically English than American. This is their fourth album following 2018’s ‘Pay Pack and Carry’ and it feels more ironic and irreverent, which makes it less easy listening and more actual listening.
The sheer musical capability of The Welfare Mothers is evident throughout. To reference the website: “Although only one is a mother and none are on welfare at the moment, they remain the tightest band this side of the Thames Delta”. Collum attributes the world-class musical standard to his band “The Welfare Mothers, with Paul Quarry on drums, Mags Layton on violin and vocals, and Martin Cutmore on bass brought these songs to life in a way that any singer-songwriter would give their eye teeth for. We were joined on these tracks by honorary Welfare Mother Martin Belmont on the flying Fender Stratocaster and Fender VI bass”.
The album opens with ‘Parachute’ which negotiates the delicate balance between facetiousness and sincerity to a background of rock and roll and Western swing. This is followed by ‘Spare Me’, a solid country-rock track driven along by a funky Hammond organ. ‘A Tall Glass of Muddy Water’ is one of the stronger songs showcasing Bob’s songwriting ability, resulting in an immersive, sprawling tale that loiters somewhere between a show tune and a blues dirge.
‘Saved’ is a rowdy bar-room cover of the Leiber and Stoller classic which is followed by ‘From Birmingham’, a straight-up weepy country ballad combining the accordion and steel guitar along with a fine fiddle solo before reverting to Western swing with the title song ‘This Heart Will Self Destruct’. It is this juxtaposition that keeps the listener on their toes. ‘Second Fiddle’ is close to the sweet spot for Bob; the song is structured around a double meaning, the country-rock composition is straight from the classics songbook, sincerity successfully edges out glib superficiality with a hint of mournful intonation in the vocal twang.
American vaudeville performances were made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill and were described as “the heart of American show business”. This seems a suitable description for this album where the musical elements border on the excellent and Bob seems to veer between humour and sincerity just when he is approaching his very best. Clearly the broad scope is part of the intent. “I think the album captures the last year quite well; songs about anxiety, hope, fear, humour, uncertainty, love, disappointment, redemption, faith, more uncertainty, more fear, more hope etc.” Not everything combines as sweetly as it could but somehow the sheer breadth of the ground covered constructs a largely coherent whole from apparently disparate parts, which is no mean feat. Overall it just feels a little less comfortable and a little more excellent than their previous work.