CYCLONIC Neko Case.
Two of indie music's most popular and tortured songwriters, Will Oldham (performing as Bonnie "Prince" Billy) and Neko Case, try to reconcile encroaching middle age with a past of bad habits on their new albums. Much of their newfound emotional tangibility stems from the full-band, Nashville country and roots arrangements they employ on their respective new releases, Case's Middle Cyclone (Anti-) and Bonnie Prince Billy's Beware (Drag City). There's an added warmth implied in this technique, but both artists are still battling their respective, time-tested demons. For Case, it's the sinister souls and letdowns always around the bend; Oldham, meanwhile, still isn't sure you can accept him for who he is. It sounds like both artists are becoming more resigned to the loads they bear.
If age begetting wisdom is a persistent undercurrent of both of those albums, it's the central drama of Chriss Sutherland's second solo album, Worried Love (his first album on Peapod Recordings, out this week). Sutherland has made a name for himself with dark and deeply idiosyncratic takes on outsider folk as part of Fire on Fire and, previously, Cerberus Shoal, but even his relatively sober solo debut (last year's Me in a 'Field', released on Digitalis Industries) doesn't quite prepare you for the lush, almost throwback country arrangements that dot Worried Love. Like Case and Oldham, Sutherland maintains his distinctive artistic tics — intuitive, garbled diction chief among them — while paying due deference to the traditions he's dabbling in.
In descending order of residual strangeness, it's sometimes hard to tell if Beware is Oldham at his loosest or his most elaborately goofy. Some of the gags — "Beware Your Only Friend"'s opening line, "I want to be your only friend," is followed by a backup chorus's response: "Is that scary?" — play like the band's (hilarious, invigorating) audition tape for A Prairie Home Companion, but Oldham's no stranger to tongue-in-cheek confessions, and that sensibility presides over much of the album. The chorus to "You Can't Hurt Me Now," built on nostalgic slide guitar and fiddle, begins "The more I feel myself/The more alone I am" (if you're wondering whether anything Oldham says is a double entendre, it almost always is); it's capped off by anachronistic but effective horns and xylophone. On "You Don't Love Me," Oldham opines, "You couldn't love me less if I was lord of Japan," which is of course followed by the toll of a gong. (Later, he says, "Sometimes you like the smell of me or how my stomach jiggles.")
Whether Oldham's being too clever is in the eye of the beholder, but even if you don't appreciate his jokes, you have to admit they mesh well with the album's primary concerns. Most of Beware finds him asking whether he's fit to love, or be loved. "Heart's Arms" pits the question with the album's starkest dualities, as insular, heavily reverbed sections of cello and electric guitar seesaw with expansive, orchestral country arrangements. In the latter, Oldham asks "Why don't you write me anymore/Have you found something as good just next door?"; in a more ominous passage, he threatens to "open this awful machine to nothing/Where once your intimacies came pounding." The song is darker and more suspenseful than most of Beware, but it hints at the game Oldham seems to be playing throughout the album, as he tries to answer some fundamental questions. If you root your fears in familiar (in this case, country and western) sentiments, are they any easier to swallow? And more urgently, can life be fulfilling if you "don't belong to anyone"? His response, uncertain shrug implied: "It's kind of easy to have some fun."
Those to come
You don't have to worry about Chriss Sutherland playing fast and loose with his uncertainties. Worried Love stares down the confusion of settling down like a series of effusive, stream-of-consciousness diary entries. His flinching is unflinching. This frantic honesty is apparent from the positively Dylanesque opening chords of "Flaking the Hands," as Sutherland's hopes, doubts, and concerns spew out in bursts of varying sizes and methods. He stretches out measures to fit verbally and symbolically acrobatic lines like "it's immensely amazing, a feat worth hands falling apart" or "the opener must conserve the nerve to survey the scene"; but he doesn't stray from a short, simple rhyme when it suits his frame of mind ("This is not a game/'Cos we are all the same/And we should know that by now").
That opener and the sublime follow-up "What Are We Gonna Do Now?" are Worried Love at its best, as Sutherland and his supporting players (including the cast of Fire on Fire, Jerusha Robinson, and Ron Harrity, who engineered most of the album) repurpose country tropes to suit the songwriter's anguished subject matter. "What Are We Gonna Do Now?"'s postmodern refrain — "I never thought the same would be the same again" — feels positively old-fashioned next to the gliding 4/4 tempo of Tom Kovacevic's saloon piano. Colleen Kinsella's backing vocals create a backdrop of gospel hope, until they're consumed by the maelstrom of Ron Harrity's guitar pedals.