Difficult realities and long-cherished values collide with a bang on Canadian Corb Lund’s first album of original material in five years. Eloquent and plainspoken, the excellent Agricultural Tragic finds the affable country rocker exploring his roots as a rancher and rodeo rider while striving to adapt this traditional identity to the challenging modern world. Though he resists lazy nostalgia, the man sounds supremely comfortable in his skin when he tells sometimes funny, sometimes touching stories marked by a keen eye for revealing detail and insightful empathy.
Blessed with a warm, sunny voice tailor-made for a set of Glen Campbell covers, Lund blends honky-tonk, rockabilly, a bit of punk, and sentimental ballads into one smooth brew that goes down like fine Kentucky bourbon. Whether offering a high lonesome salute to some wise elders on the loping “Old Men” or fearing a wilderness threat in the breakneck “Grizzly Bear Blues,” he benefits enormously from the nearly impeccable support of his energetic longtime trio, the Hurtin’ Albertans, who seem to enjoy a telepathic connection with the singer. Stellar lead guitarist and lap steel player Grant Siemens uncorks spiky licks in exciting bursts, yet never at the expense of the song, suggesting he would shine on a solo project of his own.
A good chunk of Agricultural Tragic — Lund’s term for his genre of music — spotlights the old ways. In the tender “Raining Horses,” a rancher wonders what the future holds for a new generation of ponies, and the toe-tapping “Dance with Your Spurs On” celebrates a life led honorably, saying, “Treat your partner square … Play your hand out fair” — good advice for city folks, too. On the heart-rending “Never Not Had Horses,” which Lund wrote for his mother, a woman faces the painful decision of what to do with ponies nearing the end of their time. Anyone who’s said goodbye to a beloved pet will relate, so keep a hankie handy.
Elsewhere, trouble comes knocking. Agricultural Tragic kicks off with the raucous “90 Seconds of Your Time,” wherein he attempts to talk a friend out of violent revenge after a mare and mules are stolen. “Why is everybody so surprised? You train up a ranger / Use him up, cut him loose, he goes home, he radiates danger,” Lund notes, evoking real-life horror stories. The lilting “Louis L’Amour,” referencing the popular sagebrush novelist, admits the days of good guys and bad guys are gone, concluding sadly, “A young mother cries as she searches the skies / For a time before meth hit our great western range.”
He leavens the angst with a wicked sense of humor. Lund and Jaida Dreyer spar like a long-bantering couple on the hilarious shuffle “I Think You Oughta Try Whiskey,” engaging in a witty back-and-forth worthy of Johnny and June Carter Cash. “Tattoos Blues,” a slyly laconic tale of body art gone wrong, resulting in the unfortunate inscription “No Regerts,” initially provokes chuckles, although it wears thin over repeated listenings.
The sharp mood swings, from joyous to despairing to reflective (and back again), might be unconvincing coming from a tentative artist, but Corb Lund radiates authenticity from first note to last. Unpretentious and honest, Agricultural Tragic is an unfiltered journey through a caring heart, and that’s a trip well worth taking.