Lost In The Trees? Why Richmond Fontaine’s High Country is leaving people bewildered
For Willy Vlautin it’s almost always about the story and for most of Richmond Fontaine’s history their records have been dotted with vignettes and novellas disguised as songs. Some, like Laramie, Wyoming for example, share narrative elements with his novels while others, like the postcards dotted throughout ‘Post to Wire’ tease out the bare bones of a story. Sometimes, as in The Boxer, the whole narrative unfolds in the course of one song. Absolutes, definites and conclusions are rare and that is one of Willy Vlautin’s great strengths as a writer, his ability to give away just enough of the story that we can supply our own ending if we want.
‘The High Country’ then is a departure of sorts in as much as the story plays out over the course of the whole album and while there are stories that trail off deliciously, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, there is also a beginning, a middle and an end of sorts. It has taken me quite a while to come to terms with it as a record and to figure out which of my knee-jerk reactions is justified. The cast of characters is wider than anywhere before (even in his novels he tends to keep it pretty tightly grouped) and although the principal character remain nameless we’re introduced to a gallery of misfits whao are drawn with broad strokes. One of the most striking departures though is the abandoning of the trademark gritty realism for a gothic sense of the grotesque, Raymond Carver deserted in favour of the ghost of Mary Shelley.
It’s tempting to characterise the album as an alt-country opera but it’s looser than that, more a song cycle, but it does share a sense of high melodrama with opera and it does use spoken word recitative pieces to move the story along. The opening scene setter has an unidentified narrator outline the bear bones of the story, revealing a fragmentary knowledge which we’ll have expounded upon and the scant details filled in with the real story. With a new producer on board we might expect the sound of the record to move away from what they’ve done before but although it’s looser in its overall feel than it’s predecessor it makes nods towards the band’s extensive back catalogue and ranges across the gamut of styles they’ve embraced through their career.
Is it any good though? As a whole it works. As a concept, once you accept that it doesn’t share the same groundrules as their previous work, it’s strong. The story is high gothic and it is served with a wry side of schlock humour which takes a bit of geting used to. The essential bind though is that the songs are secondary to the overall story and while the record has some great moments musically (The Chainsaw Sea, Let Me Dream of The High Country, The Eagles Lodge, Lost In The Trees) many of the link pieces don’t bear much in the way of repeated listening and some – I’m thinking here of I Can See A Room – are frankly bizarre. It’s as if they’ve deliberately set out to record something that sounds like a substandard 1980s musical, a cast-off from Phantom of The Opera or Les Miserables. It may be a joke, it may even be a good joke, but I find that mawkish synth too much to stick with.
I’ve found myself listening to it a lot, but skipping to the songs that strike home. I guess it may be one of those ‘get it out of your system’ records. We’ll have to wait for its successor to know that for certain though.