Review | Ian Noe - Between The Country
Ian Noe's "Between the Country" parties like it's 1899.
There are two types of acclaimed country music: the kind that’s experimental and genre-bending enough to attract the attention of tastemakers such as Pitchfork and Anthony Fantano (think Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves), and the kind that gains a small, devoted following by making traditional country skillfully and soulfully (think Jason Eady, Brandy Clark and Tyler Childers). Ian Noe’s debut album, “Between the Country,” isn’t obviously new or different enough to fit in the first category. Instead, Noe quietly and skillfully channels traditional murder ballads and Townes Van Zandt to make an album that seems to exist outside of time.
Noe’s very straightforward confrontation of poverty, despair, and death makes “Between the Country” sound more like a compilation of old murder ballads than a modern country album. Nearly every protagonist in “Between The Country” reconciles themselves to a tragic fate. On “Barbara’s Song,” a victim of a 1930s train accident watches her own death unfold, taking in all the details with interest and calm. Instead of fearing her own death, it fascinates her, as she comments on the number of praying people and the angel that appears in disguise as “a little man playing the violin.” The spirited warmth of the instrumentation (lots of finger-picked acoustic guitar backed by gentle percussion) sends a steady, melancholy message: “this is how things are, it is how things will be, people will die, it is something we live with.” The aging protagonist of “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” accepts a longer, slower slide into death via alcohol. Irene’s made peace with alcoholism, deciding she prefers a numbed death via drinking than a sober suicide. After a depressive episode, she calmly describes removing the mirrors, rope and guns from her house and deciding to self-medicate with gin. Noe portrays Irene as a person who’s made a reasoned decision instead of a user at the mercy of a substance, allowing her a dignity often denied to addicts. By respecting those in difficult circumstances, "Between the Country" often gives power to people usually confined to the role of victim. Noe’s protagonists may not be able to change their circumstances, but they can recognize, confront and comment on their own problems.
Noe’s focus on facing death with courage makes “Between the Country” feel tragic with a capital T in a way that reminds me of old Scottish folk ballads (and Bob Dylan songs inspired by old folk ballads). In songs like “Letter to Madeline,” which tells the story of a swaggering outcast facing down a police SWAT team, Noe makes modern day Kentucky feel as doomed and romantic as the Scottish highlands or the old West. The song works by presenting a modern scenario – a criminal surrounded by a militarized police unit – as another outlaw tale in a long line of outlaw tales. It doesn’t much matter if the protagonist is living in 1920 or 2009, black or white, a horse thief or a drug dealer, the songs of liberty or death remains the same. Noe’s voice is full of twang and quiet gravity, like a cleaner, staider version of Bob Dylan’s. Producer Dave Cobb (the hidden MVP of the album) balances the vocals perfectly at the center of the mix, so Noe’s low voice expands through the quieter instrumentation. To complete the aesthetic, Cobb adds touches of echo and reverb to Noe’s voice that makes him sound a bit like a Southern minister, preaching a sermon in a high-ceilinged church.
That quiet gravity is both the album’s hidden strength and greatest weakness. Like a preacher, Noe can make nearly anything sound weighty, quietly conjuring the specters of death, self-destruction, destitution. Noe’s so good at conjuring darkness, a few of the songs on “Between the Country” seem destined to end up as the theme to a future season of True Detective. But Noe lacks the warmth and vulnerability of a Dylan or a Prine, and their willingness to poke into people’s private lives and report on the good, the bad and the ugly. When the album tells more personal, small scale stories, Noe remains at a distance, like a documentarian who records the details of people’s lives without asking the really hard questions. That’s partly because Ian Noe’s tough, world-weary characters don’t see the use of lingering on painful emotions, and partly because Noe takes on the role of a neutral, third-party observer of life in rural Kentucky, someone who reports what he sees without judgement. In addition, the instrumentation rolls warmly along, adding detail and nuance, but not much bite.
Sometimes, Noe’s emotional distance creates the perfect effect. The tough, world-weary narrator of “Dead on the River” just read that his friend was discovered dead in the river, apparently murdered. Noe’s steady, grave tone matches the narrator’s inability to break down and cry. The song reaches an emotional peak in the last lines, when the protagonist describes himself as a dead, hollow tree fallen into a river. The endless barrage of bad news has made him unable to feel involved in his own life, his own friends, his own town: he’s “dead on the river, rolling down.” But sometimes, Noe's staid voice and subtle, overly literal lyrics prevented any relation to the characters in "Between the Country." Like most great country artists, Noe’s an ambassador to a place, who tries to help his listeners understand what it’s like to live, day to day, in a dying Kentucky town. To that end, Noe could have used his eloquence not just to conjure a general sense of sadness, but to cut to the bone. He could have torn at the hazy blanket of melancholy covering these songs, to find the anger and bitterness underneath.
Take the narrator of “Junktown,” who struggles to support himself in a depressed Kentucky town. He finds himself nostalgically longing for death, when he’ll finally be able to escape his hometown to rest. Noe lets the melancholy of the concept – death as a reprieve from constant, repetitive struggle – flow through the song, giving it the understated grandeur of a spiritual. “Junktown” succeeds in conveying the tragedy and beauty of that idea, but doesn’t communicate what it’s like to live in the protagonist’s shoes day after day. It contains none of the complicated tiredness, anger and bitterness most people feel after working manual labor jobs for years with no opportunities for promotion.
My favorite country songs contain moments where the grand lyricism falls away to reveal the small, personal moments of disappointment, frustration, or joy. Jason Isbell tells similar stories of poverty and desperation, but while Noe’s “Junktown” focuses on the general tragedy of the situation, Isbell knows when to strip away the broader sense of melancholy and let flashes of anger and frustration show through. Let’s do a side-by-side lyrics comparison of the choruses of “Junktown” and Isbell’s “Something More than Free.”
Noe delivers a staid, poetic chorus reminiscent of a spiritual:
"And glory, glory
We are awaitin'
That sweet someday
When we leave our troubles
And are taken
So far away”
While Isbell conveys the same sentiment, more directly:
“When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill, and no more rocks to break,
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else’s sake.
Cause the hammer needs a nail,
And the poor man’s up for sale,
I guess I’m doing what I’m on this earth to do.”
The lyrics in 'Something More Than Free' might be more basic, but they're also more like the unadorned, moment-to-moment thoughts of a real person. As Isbell channels his protagonist, his tone of voice shifts from sincere acceptance, to bitter sarcasm, to quiet anger. On "Junktown," Noe sounds melancholy and not much else. (That’s not to say that Noe always falls into this trap; “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” the best song on the album, paints a sympathetic and complicated portrait of a sympathetic and complicated woman.)
If this seems like I’m harping on a small flaw in an otherwise compelling album – well, you’re right. While there’s room for Noe to grow into a more sophisticated songwriter, he’s still one of the most gripping and authentic storytellers I’ve heard in the last few years. Right now, he wears his influences – Dylan, Prine, Townes van Zandt – on his sleeve. In ten or fifteen years, I suspect he’ll be the influence for the next promising country musician.
Best Songs: “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” “Dead On the River”
Worst Songs: “Junktown,” “Loving You”