The master of the woozy blue moan is back, with more off-kilter tales of the broken-down and the beaten, the destitute and the desperate – all of whom, it seems, are Delaney Davidson himself. Across ten new songs – four original, five co-written, and one by Nick Lowe – through ballads and laments, reels and rockers, a dirge and a do-si-do, Davidson invites us back into his dark and dangerous world on his new album, Swim Down Low, on Outside Inside Records.
His unmistakable deep, drowsy, nasal drawl, at times sneering, snarling, pained or pleading, is a perfect match for Davidson’s unsettling take on life’s daily struggle. Through his eyes – or rather through various pairs of “ugly eyes”, some of which he says stare right back at him – Davidson sees the world around him as full of temptation and trial, longing and regret. Yet his music grips us, wraps us lovingly in beautifully bent guitar strings, and beckons us to listen intently to the disturbing stories he tells.
His invitation to us is full of foreboding: “Come down to the dark side of town… down at the bottom where nobody go.” As his previous albums attest, this is a town he knows all too well, a town he bluntly notes is plagued by “rape, pillage and plunder”, and where (in a brilliant lyric) “poor white trash burns slow”. It is inhabited by characters that should feel foreign and fearsome, yet as Davidson portrays them, they become strangely familiar.
Sounding at turns worn-down or half tipsy, at others full of piss and vinegar, Davidson pulls us through the shadowy streets, calling our attention to the misery and woe revealed in the alleyways. As we stumble along with him, he reminds us of his persistent struggle with the dangers that lurk in deep, dark waters, and challenges his captive listener: “Will you swim, or do you sink?” He laments that “these are terrible times”, and advises us to “make your peace now before it all ends… (because) life is a dog, and you are the bone.”
Although Davidson makes sure we are aware of the many dangers and moral dilemmas that confront us, he nevertheless encourages us to “open the door to the cellar” and to contemplate our options as we “stand there balanced on the brink”. He urges us forward with false reassurance, saying, “Don’t be afraid of the demon inside”, and feigns bravado by claiming that the “Devil drinks coffee and the Lord drinks tea, but it’s all just drink to a boy like me”. Yet eventually, even he seems to realize the risk and the cost of indulgence, albeit too late, asking that “God help the beast in me.” With resignation, he pleads: “Oh, jailor, take this life and give me another. Give this one back to my mother”.
All is not lost, however. Davidson is a survivor. And despite the new album’s generally dour subject matter, most of the tracks on Swim Down Low are rhythmically upbeat, with several out-and-out rockers. What’s more, as he has on previous albums, he scatters his ever-wry sense of humor liberally throughout, keeping us slightly back on our heels, and giving us a chance to grin and breathe now and then.
The result is that his intoxicating music pulls us relentlessly along, making the journey so compelling that we cannot turn back, we cannot look away; instead, we dive in with abandon. Davidson is very good at this sort of thing. With his inimitable and instantly recognizable voice, his multi-instrumental mastery at melding a broad range of musical styles, and his penchant for the bleak, the off-beat and the unexpected, he has built a sound like none other I have heard.
Over the course of five solo albums and two collaborations with fellow-crooner Marlon Williams, Davidson has displayed a skilled command of traditional country, country & western, bluegrass, rockabilly, psychobilly, and rock’n’roll, and an apparent respectable familiarity with New Orleans and gypsy jazz, swing, oompah, Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Balkan, and a variety of other musical flavors from around the world – often spun together in a rich, delectable gumbo on the same record. When I feel lazy, I might call his music alt-country, Southern Gothic, or Gothic Americana, but in fact his sound is so unique that I typically find myself at a loss for words in describing it to others. Whatever it is, to my ears it feels deeply rooted and old, though at the same time unconstrained by style or era… and it behaves like a force to be reckoned with.
I really like Delaney Davidson. I like the very idea of him, and I especially like knowing that someone like him actually exists. I love his strong sense of pathos and his twisted sense of humor. I love the sound of his music, and I love the sound of Swim Down Low.
Davidson has waited long enough, despite much deserving work, for a real ‘breakthrough’ album. If justice prevails, his time has come.