Dylan LeBlanc came racing out of the traps with a very fine self-produced debut album in 2010 (‘Pauper’s Field’) when he was just 20 years old. The album caught fire, due to its fine writing and LeBlanc’s intensely beautiful voice and led him to be invited to support artists such as Lucinda Williams and The Civil Wars (who were big then!) to promote it. It attracted Emmylou Harris on background vocals. Two years later he released ‘Cast the Same Old Shadow’ which included his Muscle Shoals session man father James on guitar but failed to find universal acclaim from critics despite the increasingly generous assessment of his songwriting. It was a rather slow melancholy album with sad keys and keening steel and somewhat bleak lyrics.
It transpired that LeBlanc was dealing with various issues during this period – in his own words he “was an idiot“. Drink and drugs were a lethal combination together with anger management issues, a legacy from a broken home, a misspent youth in Shreveport, one of the various places he moved between during these formative years. It was toxic especially as people kept telling him how good he was and how successful he could be if he only addressed his issues, and stopped letting people down. Yet he continued to get support from other artists and producers. John Paul White (from the by now extinct Civil Wars) was one such saviour and he became producer on LeBanc’s next album.
‘ Cautionary Tale’ was eventually released in 2016, to better overall reviews, but it still did not set the world alight and LeBlanc was in any event still getting to grips with the recovery that he was determined to make – time spent in rehab during this time and therapy thereafter meant that the album was nearly two years in the making. One began to wonder then if LeBlanc could make that ‘classic’ album.
And then, in 2019, he did, when he released ‘Renegade’, a wholly different and more enlightened approach (as if he had cast off his demons and was ready to start life again – he was, by then 29 years old). Beautifully produced by Dave Cobb, go-to producer for many artists looking to get back to a live, warm, acoustic feeling on record. And, as if the years of teenage angst and challenges with drink and drugs had informed his first three albums, ‘Renegade’ was more dramatic, more dynamic and, to use confected jargon, a bold tour-de-force. With a wonderful electric guitar riff and haunting organ in the background to kickstart the album, LeBlanc’s beautiful but ‘reedy’ voice is set off against the Tom Petty-like instrumentation for the title track and it sounds wonderful – smooth reverbed electric guitar solos and riffs – and, in common with much of LeBlanc’s output, a stunning melody.
And it continues throughout the entire album, great swirls of electric guitar, ethereal organ and keys in the mix, driving rhythm section (all courtesy of LeBlanc’s backing band The Pollies, that LeBlanc had insisted on using), and a stunning string arrangement on the last track, ‘Honor among Thieves’, a standout among standouts on an album full of exquisite songs. ‘Bang Bang Bang’, a scorching rocker is about gun violence in New Orleans, ‘Domino’ is about a prostitute looking for self-respect, ‘Born Again’ tackles organized religion, and the aforementioned ballad ‘Honor among Thieves’ a reflection on the history of US immigration. And then there is the gorgeous ‘Lone Rider’ about loneliness and solitude, driven with mournful piano, the usual layered guitars and subtle ethereal backing vocals. “cause I’m a lone rider High across the plain All my life I’ve been haunted By the wrong kind of fame just a lone rider The solitary kind I’d rather give you my heart Than a piece of my mind”. LeBlanc has been likened to Tom Petty and Neil Young, although his voice most closely resembles Ryan Adams, but he is without doubt his own man. And now he seems to have left most of his demons behind – he is engaged to be married and is father to a little girl, a grounding experience notwithstanding that he still considers himself “dancing on a razor”.
LeBlanc has since released ‘Coyote’, another full-on and outstanding listen, self-produced having seemingly absorbed and integrated his experience with Dave Cobb, but ‘Renegade’ is the album that really lifted his profile and reputation for melodic and lyrical excellence. It deserves a place amongst the line-up of classic americana albums.