Slaid Cleaves releases his first album since 2013’s “Still Fighting the War” and it has to be said that the four-year wait has been worthwhile as “Ghost on the Car Radio” is an outstanding return. Born and raised in Maine but now a resident of Austin, Texas, Cleaves has clearly used the time wisely as this is an outstanding bunch of songs, full of insight and characters who are wrestling with the realities of modern life in small-town America such as the reflective tone of the amateur racer in Primer Gray who dwells on life’s changes as her relates his family’s connection to the sport. Or there are the changes that cause hardship to the family farm in Hickory as the narrator accepts that “you can’t stop the march of time”.
Little Guys is probably the one track that best sums the album up; the mechanic in an established but struggling family business, who spent forty years breathing in brake dust, is now being run down by big business. Cleaves offers voice to the small man, the losers in life and those who are suffering from change, but he does it with a bounce and spirit that ensures we stay engaged.
Take Home Pay is one of those songs that will instantly become a favourite upon first hearing as “dreamers dream of better days” with a story of an eternal optimist just waiting for that break, even if it is just “selling pills at the Super 8”. The Old Guard, a country song about the gap between the young and old, in musical and many other respects.
Cleaves has the sort of voice that brings the disparate characters to life and as he dwells on relationships in So Good To Me and To Be Held we see further depths to the song-writing that makes this such a rounded album and sits along the more rockier Still Be Mine and Already Gone.
“Ghost on the Car Radio” certainly contains some difficult themes of hardship and acceptance of inevitable change, but there is also a reassuring air of optimism that ensures the listener is not dragged down. Slaid Cleaves tours the UK in September and on this evidence will be a must-see if he’s in your neighbourhood.
Outstanding return by Austin-based Maine folk singer-song-writer.