The Lone Bellow have never been strangers to letting their personal lives saturate the music they create. In fact, Zach Williams first began writing songs as a way to cope with the paralysis his wife was left with following a horseback riding accident. Since that moment — which, miraculously, evolved into a full recovery for Williams’ wife — he’s consistently written from those deep, personal chasms of his soul. On The Lone Bellow’s latest record, Half Moon Light, Williams and fellow bandmates and writers Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist do their best to challenge their comfort as they begin to tell stories from other people’s perspectives. The result is, without a doubt, the band’s most profound and dynamic LP since their formation nearly a decade ago. It also, amazingly, shines as a profoundly intimate and personal record.
That unmistakable intimacy opens the album with an upbeat, delicate piano introduction. The piano was recorded at the funeral of Williams’ grandfather; as the casket was carried down the aisle, his grandmother got up, walked to the piano, and started playing. That music not only serves as the opening track, but also as the interlude and finale, creating a beautifully cohesive listening experience from beginning to end.
Recorded at Aaron Dessner’s studio in upstate New York, Half Moon Light finds The Lone Bellow at their most collaborative, too. When the album was announced, Elmquist noted that they tried to invite as many people into the process as possible, and it seems like they achieved their goal. With Dessner’s guidance, The Lone Bellow brought in Josh Kaufman, who has played with The War on Drugs, The National, Josh Ritter, and Hiss Golden Messenger, and J.T. Bates, a drummer who has jammed with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mason Jennings, Joe Pug, Trampled by Turtles, and many others. Kyle Resnick and Benjamin Lanz, horns for The National, also show up on “Good Times” and “Friends.”
As the band stretched themselves through collaboration, they also flexed new creative muscles as they wrote by putting themselves in the shoes of people other than themselves. In the John Prine-esque “Good Times,” Williams belts out unforgettable stories handed down to him over the years, like, “He can calm a newborn baby / Saved his own life in a flood / Been tied up by Chinese pirates / Spent the night in his own blood.” Later, in “Illegal Immigrant,” Pipkin takes the role of a mother looking for her child after they are separated at the border, singing, “I promised I’d find you wherever you are / Wherever you are / Here I am, you’ll never be alone again.” Pipkin shines every time her voice hits the speakers, but perhaps no more so than on the bluesy, infuriating “Just Enough to Get By.” Pipkin makes a bold, clear statement as she flutters, “If silence is golden, I know a lot of wealthy women / Buying what’s been sold them, buy anything but freedom.”
Half Moon Light instantly stands out as the band’s most adventurous, fearless record of their career. Leaving behind the tried-and-true elements of past albums, the trio sheds any folk monikers left over from 2017’s Walk Into a Storm and offers fans an album that could fill a football stadium as much as it could set the mood in a quaint local coffee shop. Though the folk music may be in the background, what hasn’t been lost is The Lone Bellow’s unparalleled energy, which is found deep in the grooves of every single track.