Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder
The No-Hit Wonder, the fourth album (second on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records) from Memphis-bred, Nashville-based veteran Cory Branan, is the kind of album that somehow manages to pack punches full of maturity, wit, heartache, and tenderness with such consistency and genre-defying verve that it has the quiet power to make even the most jaded listener hopeful about the current states of popular music, wordplay, and love.
Branan’s lyrics are arresting enough on paper (which explains why his way with words has been championed by the formidable likes of Jason Isbell, Lucero, and Chuck Ragan, who has deemed Branan “the greatest songwriter of our generation”), but in the narrative context of a country-rooted song that is anchored by his knack for crafting an indelible melody, those words convey often-conflicting emotions honestly and set scenes with such vivid — and discernibly Southern — details that the end result tends to feel more like a great novel you’ve lived inside for a month, rather than a three and a half minute tune that should be a hit on the radio but probably never will be. Hence the album title and hard-charging knockout title track, an anthem for any protagonist spending “years of living blood to string, gig to gig, east to west, north to south.”
Branan (with an assist from the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Steve Selvidge) knows the score isn’t pretty in 2014 though, which is why he turns one of my most-despised aphorisms into one of my favorite choruses of the year: “It is what is.” In addition to Finn and Selvidge, Branan taps an armful of the top-shelf contemporaries to flesh out the winsome highs throughout The No-Hit Wonder: Isbell steps in for harmonies on the opener “You Make Me,” a love song with a crackling tempo and lyrics that mesh sentimentality with prison break urgency, and “The Highway Home,” a vintage rambler’s opus with a sweeping, sung-to-the-skies chorus that’s compelling enough to have the country fans, rockers and punks singing along without reservation. Caitlin Rose and Austin Lucas chime in on the lovely, steel-driven ballad “All the Rivers in Colorado,” punctuated by the refrain:
All the rivers in Colorado couldn’t wash you off my mind
not that I’m trying,
just a thought though
it might be nice to keep from crying
Tim Easton sinks his teeth into backing vocals on “Sour Mash,” an electric cut of punk-infused, Sun Studio-adoring rockabilly that feels destined to soundtrack many drunken nights in pubs and honky-tonks alike.
Branan is an artist in such control of his craft as a songwriter and musician that much of the pleasure of taking in The No-Hit Wonder time and again is rooted in how offhand many of its finest moments seem. On first listen, a waltzing country number with a jazz lounge delivery (“C’mon Shadow”) or a bouncy tune with an accordion lead and a state fair spirit (“Daddy Was a Skywriter”) can seem a bit precious alongside other songs here, but it’s upon delving into the genuine, earned humanity at their core that you see quite realistic portraits of a searching life on display. Branan is the sort of intuitive songwriter who has no qualms about tossing in a well-worn cliché (“it is what it is” on “The No-Hit Wonder”, spraying names on a bridge so the town will “recall What’s His Face loves So and So” on “The Only You”), as a rope-a-dope that frees him up to cut to the bone with his cunning wizardry with words whenever he feels like it. A favorite example comes in the first verse of “The Only You,” which immediately follows the “it is what it is” mantra of “The No-Hit Wonder” and precedes the song’s eventual bridge and the spray-painting of the literal bridge within it. Branan sings:
I hear you’ve got another boy
I hear he looks a lot like me
There’s some calm with some kind of guarantee
Well, I got me another girl and she looks like you at 23
while she sleeps I trace the places where your tattoo used to be.
It’s equally heartbreaking, hilarious and tender stuff, and Branan delivers revelatory moments like these more routinely than just about any other songwriter around today. “Yeah, when I get lonely, sure she’ll do,” he later confesses, “but you’re the only you.” It may be somewhat predestined in today’s mainstream music landscape that Cory Branan will never beat the odds to earn praise beyond being many of your favorite songwriters’ favorite songwriter, but The No-Hit Wonder is his best album to date. It is, quite simply, all kinds of wonderful and filled to the brim with should-be hits.
Cory Branan’s The No-Hit Wonder is out now via Bloodshot Records.