“It’s no use, God bless these blues, let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered,” is just one of John Moreland’s more ‘cheerful’ reflections on his ‘Big Bad Luv’ album about how he has finally found an enduring life partner. But in fact, that kind of gritty realism about relationships and stifling of any romantic vision of love is what makes the 47 minutes-worth of spellbinding roots rock and folk tracks on ‘Big Bad Luv’ both an instant classic and wise beyond its years.
So how did he get there? Come 2017 and the arrival of his fourth solo album Moreland had already been quietly making a name for himself on the other rims of americana for well over a decade. That was first as the lead singer in Oklahoma roots-punk and thrashy guitar alt-country bands with fairly brief life-spans (the highly recommendable John Moreland and the Dust Bowl Souls being one of the last) before taking off for a lone career around ten years ago.
It’s said that he was inspired by Steve Earle’s music to make a definitive shift to americana and certainly while the (justified) comparisons with both Earle and Bruce Springsteen have never really faded, Moreland never had a problem setting his own store out in style as well. From the word go, a song like the heart-rending ‘Heaven’, which had appeared on the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ TV series and which featured on his debut solo album ‘Earthbound Blues’ (2011) proved how harrowing and powerful his music could be. Just to stick to Moreland songs featuring in the tumultuous California-bike-gangs-meets-Shakespearian-tragedy series, both ‘Gospel’ and ‘Your Spell’ further confirmed his capacity for producing searingly brilliant but majorly woeful music. (“Creakingly somber” was one memorable description of his output on one AUK live review from a few years back.)
But after years of writing songs that were considered to be paeans to misery, suddenly a new kind of optimism emerges in ‘Big Bad Luv’. There’s even a track with as upbeat a title as ‘Ain’t We Gold’ on it for goodness sake. And as such, the album truly felt like a new point of departure.
Recorded in Little Rock, Arkansas over a period of ten months, with musicians like keyboard player Rick Steff – who’s also played with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Lucero and Hank Williams Jr. – making some stunning contributions on songs like ‘Lies I Chose To Believe’, ‘Big Bad Luv’ is both far more consistently rockier than his previous albums, and contains a broader spread of styles as well. There are nods towards country music, some thundering blues-rock (‘Ain’t We Gold’), strong tastes of organ-backed gospel, a large helping of pure rowdy Red Dirt rock (‘Sallisaw Blue’) and a couple of more familiar-sounding semi-acoustic folk numbers as well. But while the faultlessly tight arrangement throughout all these different types of musical terrain helps maintain the lp’s momentum, it’s Moreland’s morose, hoarse acceptance that he might actually be getting into a better place – while all the time pointing out the pitfalls and risks – that arguably gives ‘Big Bad Luv’ its most enduring interest.
On the opening ‘Sallisaw Blue’ grim warnings of “a noose hanging down from the heavens above” and “I don’t own anything, you don’t know shit,” prove from the get-go that this album does anything but wear rose-tinted glasses about love. “The tools we use to fix ourselves are just the fools we stood beside,” he snarls at one point on ‘Love is not an Answer’, although even that particularly bleak chorus-title gets qualified immediately afterwards with “I don’t need an answer, I need you”. There’s space for some harsh humour too, about what it was like back then in his full-on misery days when he tells his other half in ‘Old Wounds’: “So don’t forget to love me in damnation for the living I have earned on love gone wrong, and we’ll open up old wounds in celebration, if we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.”
So ‘Big Bag Luv’ achieves the near-impossible: it’s both resolutely optimistic – “when I look into the mirror now I see a man I never knew that I could be” he sings on the concluding ‘Latchkey Kids’ – but doesn’t allow you to forget where it’s coming from or pull any punches about how hard things could yet be. “These days when I pray I don’t close my eyes, I just bite my tongue a little harder,” he muses on ‘Lies I Chose To Believe’, yet another reflection on the fine line we all walk between faith in the future and self-deception. Small wonder in wrenchingly uncertain times like these, ‘Big Bad Luv’ may be anything but escapism, yet it’s an album you want to go back to again and again.