Middle age may have arrived but their rock & roll shoes still fit.
It may come as a surprise, but Deer Tick have been in existence for nearly twenty years, and ‘Emotional Contracts’ is their eighth studio album and comes six years after the brace of albums recorded at Ardent Studios, Memphis, ‘Deer Tick, Vol.1’ and ‘Deer Tick Vol. 2′. While ‘Emotional Contracts’ is still very much a Deer Tick album there are subtle changes that reflect the band’s growing maturity. John McCauley is still a major presence in the band, but the songwriting is more collaborative this time round, reflecting the time and effort Deer Tick spent demoing and developing a clutch of songs before selecting the final ten that would ultimately make up ‘Emotional Contracts’. While the subject matter is concerned with growing older and the finality of life while maintaining an overall sense of informed hopefulness, the band’s confidence in the songs meant that they were able to take a much more relaxed approach in the studio enabling a sound more akin to their live shows to be achieved, with the help and guidance of alt rock guru, and Mercury Rev founding member, producer Dave Fridmann at his Western New York studio. There are also guest appearances by Los Lobos’s Steve Berlin, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Steve Poltz, with horns and horn arrangements by Jon Fridmann and string arrangements by Skye Soto Steele.
The opening track ‘If I Try To Leave’ gets straight to the current band dynamics as it is the first co-write between McCauley and Ian Patrick O’Neil, reflecting the new spirit of collaboration within Deer Tick, with lyrics that confirm the importance of a family as we age. If anyone is concerned that the band were losing their rock & roll credentials, they needn’t have worried, as the music is inspired by Keith Richards’s solo records. O’Neil is featured on ‘Forgiving Ties’, his examination of dealing with sudden challenges and the need to protect your family. Again, while the subject matter may be dour, the music is anything but, featuring Jon Fridmann’s trumpet. Another McCauley co-write, this time with Canadian Steve Poltz, looks at the need to ignore the past and make the most of the present because nothing lasts forever. McCauley’s ‘If She Could Only See Me Now’ had a long gestation and was first released in 2021 as a live track, and is finally given the full studio treatment here. ‘Running From Love’ moves the spotlight to Dennis Ryan as the band shows their R&B chops.
Writer’s block had plagued McCauley for a while until he started co-writing with Steve Peltz, and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ was one of the first songs he managed to write with his newfound confidence and it deals with the need to grab and make the most of the the moment because we are all ultimately going to die. There is a sense of continuity with the O’Neil penned ‘Disgrace’ and the earlier ‘Forgiving Ties’ as the narrator continues his journey to true self-awareness. The second McCauley Poltz co-write mixes Poltz’s George Harrison inspired changes with McCauley’s tale of a middle-aged barfly who meets someone from his past. There is a recognition that life and relationships are not like a fairy tale and things can and will go wrong in O’Neils ‘A Light Can Go Out In The Heart’. Closing track ‘The Real Thing’ emerged from a jam session and is McCauley opening up about clinical depression.
Deer Trick may be entering middle age and all that that entails, but with ‘Emotional Contracts’ they show that they can embrace middle age while keeping their rock & roll shoes on. Part of the success of ‘Emotional Contracts’ is that they have managed to bring the feel and energy of their live shows to a studio record, and they have added further dimensions to the songwriting dynamics within the band. Twenty years in americana and rock & roll is a long time, but with ‘Emotional Contracts’ you have to believe that Deer Tick have the energy and maturity to keep going for at least another twenty years.