Ghost Light, the newest album from Nashville-based singer-songwriter Ben de la Cour has quickly become one of the most pleasant surprises to arrive in my inbox of late. These twelve songs are brimming with urgent authenticity. There is thematic hardness and vulnerability throughout, which should come as little surprise seeing how de la Cour cites Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen as influences. Other beloved touchstones come to mind as well: lead knockout “I Went Down to Dido” carries an air of homage to Johnny Cash’s great, late-career triumph “When the Man Comes Around,” de la Cour’s evocative, delicate ballads have much in common with Taylor Goldsmith’s Dawes songbook, shades of Lucinda Williams pop up in both the map-hopping lyrics and the southern melancholy, and even haunting bits Elliott Smith creep into the exquisite “Sobriety and the Woman.”
What distinguish de la Cour’s songs from lesser guitar-and-anguished-vocals hacks are the raw humanity of his delivery and the potency of his way with words. Originally bred in Brooklyn before planting in Nashville, de la Cour has logged the necessary miles (both physically and emotionally) to sing the truths of these tunes. He has seen the world while living in fantastical cities as disparate as Los Angeles, Havana, London and Paris, and he has reportedly made his wages as an amateur boxer, a farmhand, a janitor and a bartender while honing his troubadour essence.
When de la Cour sings “Wake up darling it’s getting late / we got to get up and get on that interstate,” you know he means it. When he later dispenses the wisdom “I’ve been to London and I’ve been to Rome / been to New York City and San Antone / and I’m telling you boys, there’s no place like home / that’s just something I wouldn’t know,” you best believe that final admission came after plenty of hardship. The song (presumably, intentionally) plays like the Man in Black’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” (which sure is no complaint from this writer), but de la Cour hits his biggest heights when he digs into the nitty, gritty details of how he learned and where he stands: “I’ve never made much money off this guitar / no I’ve never made a thing off of this guitar / but it feels pretty good to have got this far / and let me tell you now that the choice wasn’t hard / because being broke with a broken heart sure beats the hell out of working in bars.”
The Man in Black reference seems fitting not because de la Cour sounds like him often (his delivery and the backing playing - courtesy of top-notch work from Keith Botello on drums and piano and Steve Calandra on upright bass - on “I Went Down to Dido” and “Even If It All Falls Through” are the two glaring, outstanding exceptions, while most offerings have more in common with Townes or stripped-down Dawes), but because de la Cour conjures his name in one of the album’s most curious, brilliant verses. In “Sobriety and the Woman,” after the heartbreaking opening line “She’s sleeping with some other guy / she doesn’t know why…but we all know,” de la Cour endures an eviscerating burn from Cash’s voice coming from an otherwise mundane object: “The hair dryer sounded like Johnny Cash / and if she laid me down / I’d shatter like glass / and I don’t know / I don’t know how much more I can take.” The breathtaking sadness that de la Cour inexplicably achieves in the simplest of harmonies (you really have to hear them to feel the weight) throughout the song truly is a towering achievement of almost “Needle in the Hay” proportions.
Other Ghost Light standouts include “Howlin’ in the Dark,” a lushly rendered wanderer’s dirge with coal-black imagery on par with the likes of Nick Cave or Cormac McCarthy (“I was thinking ‘bout my friend Miguel out in Dead Indian Pass / who saw his shadow rise up / leave face down in the grass…all chewed up by coyotes / mouth full of dust and dirt”), and “Memorial Day,” a down-and-out lament for a lives of toil without just rewards (In addition to the brutal “maybe inside this worn-out shell / there’s a heart as hard as stone / and I tried to give up drinking / but nobody understood / how hard it is to make shit work when you know you’re no good,” de la Cour pictures “Johnny Lennon” forced to beg with his last breath, even after singing “Let It Be” and writing “All You Need Is Love”). Album closer “Palace of Mirrors” is a gut-punch rumination of love gone wrong through a prism of tarot card readings and blackjack dealings. After wandering into the gambling palace heartsick and “getting worse hands than a blind blacksmith,” de la Cour’s final verse of Ghost List is a wicked diamond:
“I nearly died laughing but then I thought to myself / What good’s dying when you’re barely alive?”
That query hangs thick in the air, as de la Cour hums a gorgeous refrain that one can't help but assume is the necessary, wordless answer to his question. Then he releases it all out with swells of melodic moans, casting off all the hard-luck humanity and undeniable beauty to whomever does or doesn’t watch over all these striving, imperfect souls.
*This review first appeared on Division St. Harmony on September 4, 2013.
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee.
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel & @DivisnStHarmony and on Facebook.
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