Artist: John Moreland
Album: Big Bad Luv
Release Date: 05/05/2017
Singer-songwriter Moreland has been steadily building his reputation, poised to break through in a big way. This, his fourth solo album, might just be that chance. This big man looks anything but famous but that’s already started to change. 2013’s High on Tulsa Heat was widely acclaimed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and NPR; and resulted in Moreland’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Moreland has reached the point where he’s moving beyond his DIY label operation, having signed with 4AD. “It grew to the point where I couldn’t really handle everything myself,” he says. “Even with a manager and small team, I came to the conclusion that I’d like to play music and not worry about the other stuff.” So, the stage has been set for Moreland to recruit more musicians, get superior engineering and take it up a few notches.
This is not the solo singer-songwriter fare we’ve associated with Moreland. It sounds more like Ray Wylie Hubbard or John Hiatt and the Goners, definitely leaning more to the rock ‘n’ roll side. Songs like “Lies I Chose to Believe” and Moreland’s low, working-class voice have me comparing him to Springsteen too.
As you listen, you can sense a freer, looser Moreland leaving behind that dark persona that colored his earlier albums, though a closer listen reveals that some of that remains, it’s just more balanced with optimism and bouncier due the full band accompaniment. Moreland reflects, “So, yeah, I didn’t really expect to be here. But, then, on the other hand, I did. I feel like I’m good enough to be here. And I’ve always been confident, even when I probably shouldn’t have been. I knew I was an outsider. I didn’t have a lot of faith in the music industry to let me in. But I guess they have. To some extent. That what I hoped for, but I wasn’t sure that would be how it worked.”
The album was recorded in Little Rock, AR, mostly with a crew of Tulsa friends: John Calvin Abney on piano and guitar, Aaron Boehler on bass; Paddy Ryan on drums; and Jared Tyler (who has his own solo album due on May 19th) on dobro. Memphis keyboard mainstay and Lucero’s Rick Steff proved to be the catalyst for the project. Steff gave Moreland a promise to record next week, even though Moreland didn’t have songs, not a one. “I went home and wrote five songs in four days and finished up,” Moreland says. Recording was done in three sessions over ten months, sandwiched between touring dates. John also points to “the only person I’ve ever worked with on a record whose name I can drop,” engineer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, The Black Keys, Tom Waits).
“I don’t think I’m writing songs that are that much different,” Moreland says. “It’s always been a positive thing at heart, even if a song isn’t sunshine and rainbows. At the very least, my songs have been a way to exorcise negative feelings so that I can move on, Hopefully they provide that same experience to listeners. So that’s what I’m still doing. I think it’s a positive thing. I think this record, there’s definitely a change in attitude, but it’s the same point of view.” Lyrics like “Love is not an answer/Oh I don’t need an answer/I need you/ Don’t let me meet the devil I sing those songs about” (“Love Is Not an Answer”) and “In churches learning how to hate yourself/Ain’t grace a wretched old thing” (“Ain’t We Gold”) exemplify his statements.
The musical backdrop is mostly supportive, bolstered in many places by Steff’s piano. As you’d expect, the strength of the album is in Moreland’s writing and singing. For those reasons, I can’t stop listening. Moreland has indeed arrived in his own singular, big, big way.