Soul-wrenching sorrow can be a heavy load to bear for the most resilient heart, but Arlo McKinley is up to the challenge on This Mess We’re In. An unsparing account of his struggle to stare down the demons of a life lived on the edge, this riveting self-portrait depicts the Cincinnati-bred troubadour as a battle-scarred truth-teller who prizes honesty above all.
Signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records before the great man’s passing, McKinley released his label debut, Die Midwestern, in 2020. That album’s “Bag of Pills,” as well as the standalone track “Ghost of My Best Friend,” showed McKinley’s gift for heavy lifting. While the lonesome hillbilly twang of his voice and understated country-folk songs feel familiar from the first note, the gravity and plainspoken eloquence he brings to his music mark it as something special.
Produced by Matt Ross-Spang, who also did the honors on Die Midwestern, This Mess We’re In captures unfiltered responses to fraught situations. The languid opening track, “I Don’t Mind,” sets the tone. His laid-back drawl belies a sense of anguish as he reveals, “I never thought that I would be someone that would break your heart…But now I can admit that I got scared and began to run.” The lazy shuffle of “Back Home” can’t soothe the sense of impending doom, marked by imagery of guns and cocaine, even as McKinley confesses, “I hold myself accountable / for everything that I have done.”
This chilling pessimism inspires deeply melancholy self-examination within him.“I’m scared to death I’ll always be / What I’ve always been,” he sighs amidst the crashing guitars of “Rushintherug,” adding, “We’re cold, we’re scared, we’re shaking on the floor.” On “Dancing Days” he wails, “They don’t know who I am now / They only know the things that I have done.” Is there any escape from fate? Can a person change? McKinley doesn’t pretend to know, though he hungers for answers.
Elsewhere, he discovers optimism. “Where You Want Me” embraces vulnerability, while McKinley dares to dream in the elegant title track, exclaiming, “Girl, let’s set this world on fire / This time it’s the real thing.” After so much angst, such hope is shocking — in a good way.
On most tracks, Ross-Spang’s subtle production and the low-key support of such stellar players as guitarist Will Sexton, drummer Ken Coomer, and especially fiddler Jessie Munson, allow McKinley’s songs to breathe, creating the sensation of one-on-one intimacy with the listener.
Occasionally, however, a more theatrical sensibility surfaces, with the dramatic arrangements of “Here’s to the Dying” and “To Die For” suggesting self-conscious performance, not unguarded moments. If such departures are initially a tad jarring, they show McKinley continuing to stretch creatively, which surely bodes well for the future.
This Mess We’re In is out July 15 on Oh Boy Records.