Don’t let the sunny yellow album cover and cheery title fool you: Happy Again is an album about being sad.
The 11 songs written by Bill and the Belles frontman Kris Truelsen in the aftermath of his divorce provide the perfect proving ground for the band’s ability to apply their retro sound to the modern world, placing sadness and stress in that timeless frame of three (or so) chords and the truth.
The opening track adds a little – actually a lot – of context to the album’s title. “Happy Again (I’ll Never Be)” kicks off with a vivid picture of what’s to come: “I used to be happy, I used to be gay / The sun used to shine down upon me each day / But now I am lonesome, and lost in a daze / Cuz she’s gone, she’s gone away.” It’s the oldest story in the book, but no one makes it sound quite like Bill and the Belles do. Truelsen’s plaintive vocal gets a lift from supporting “oooohs” and “yeah yeah yeahs” from fiddle player Kalia Yeagle and banjo player Helena Hunt, and the lyrics find their way to unexpected places (“I’ve got an ache in my heart and an ache in my tooth / Spend most of my days fixing this hole in my shoe”) that offer a reminder that humor can live right alongside sadness, and even sometimes get along.
Heartbreak comes in many flavors, and Happy Again explores them all. There’s the “I will survive” swagger of “Taking Back My Yesterday” and “That’ll Be Just Fine,” but also a few good wallows in despair, like “Blue So Blue” and “Sobbin’ the Blues,” the latter of which includes actual sobs as part of the chorus. It’s a jarring, almost ugly sound, but it also perfectly portrays a jarring, ugly emotion — a true rendering of a dark place served with a silver lining of humor.
Produced by Teddy Thompson, no stranger to songs about heartbreak himself, Happy Again introduces some new textures to the band’s sound, including piano and organ and even some drums. But the fundamental, classic country, gather-round-the-radio sounds that Bill and the Belles tap into haven’t changed a bit, and neither has their charm. Providing a mid-album intermission from the heartbreak are a pair of songs that are just plain fun — “The Corn Shuckin’ Song,” which might about what it says it is, or it might be something else entirely, and “Bye Bye Bill,” about a beer-drinking whale.
Before the album lets you go, it sounds a hopeful note with “Get Up and Give It One More Try,” a pep talk that takes the same approach a good friend might: a little gentleness, and then a faster tempo that’s a loving punch in the arm. And good friends themselves get their due on the album’s closer, “Good Friends Are Hard to Find,” a reminder that a true pal, just like good music, can get us through the hardest of times and make us start to feel, well, happy again.