Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
One year ago, The Broken West released an album entitled I Can't Go On, I'll Go On and it was bursting with the kinds of harmonies that come of holy waters of the American West and the kinds of allusions to suns setting over placid lakes and ponds, crickets howling into a black desert night, and healthy glows raging all over everyone's bodies. It is the kind of album that people take to the twilight banks of sand for skinny-dipping rendezvous-ing and for getting moderately drunk without the assistance of any sort of alcoholic beverage. It's a stunning piece of pop rock and roll that is the epitome of idyllic California - all of the places in the state that Los Angeles is not.
It's more about those big, towering redwoods, the majestic capes that hug onto the ocean, the forgotten natural escapes and the freedom of temptation, a Laurel Canyon experience where there's a slept-in feeling comingling with pot and cigarette smoke and alert skin. It was teeming with the sort of first impression splendor, though Ross Flournoy, Dan Iead and Brian Whelan weren't rank amateurs of impressions out there on the coast. They were not soaking it in for the first time and getting silly on all that they observed. It just felt that way and though there were plenty of reminiscent moments of unfortunate run-ins with love and the like, the album maintained such a strong hold on the carefree idea of California living. Sometimes an album, like it or not, just captures a sense and plants you in a premonition or an assumption of somewhere that's more fiction than truth as far as hands-on experience goes. The West Coast - other than the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and Los Angeles - has always held sway with dreamers and romantics and sometimes the dreams are accurate. The songs never lie and so the feeling is perpetuated on and on like some endless kiss.
On the group's sophomore release, Now Or Heaven, it's something that's completely different from what was heard before and yet it's not a diversion that takes us the long way around to what it originally established as its trademark brilliance with hooks aplenty and an inviting convoy of hummability and blazing riffs on that first record. It's still The Broken West doing time with its chief mistress, but it's more of a jaded, or rather jilted man's record, where most of that bright beaming buzz has been rubbed out with the sole of a roughed up boot. These are fellows who have barnstormed all over the world and let's just forget that they're out there playing their songs in front of people - the main reason that they're out there on those roads.
The newest album allows us a chance to consider these men as if they'd been through the trenches, had the bottoms drop out of all kinds of emotional roller coasters along the way. They set out with eyes wide open, the size of bulls, and when they returned and were able to debrief, they sat slumped with bags under those bloodshot eyes and scattered about them were remnants of what they'd missed and who'd missed them when they were gone. There are friends scoffing at the lives that they're living. There are women telling them that they've changed and they insist that they've done nothing of the sorts, that all is just as it's always been. Everything's set in a little more firmly and the honeymoon has become a waning moon, an object that's now half as lovely. The nights are colder and the people are stranger. The women of these characters' lives have moved on.
Flournoy sings twice on the album about diamonds, once in reference to trying to impossibly find one in a bag of ice and another time sitting around looking for flaws in them as they spill the ice from their drink glasses onto the lawn, as if the scene could use a bittersweet symphony to emphasize the conflict that's been dealt. There's a considerable amount of heartache and disillusion coming to light, and a movement of the brutal truth to the head of the table to start sermonizing away those pastoral glows.
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