There’s something sleight-of-hand-ish about Slaid Cleaves’ new CD. While thematically and even in mood, the songs reflect the album’s dour title, it’s impossible to listen to these tracks and not feel a sense of uplift and hope. Part of that optimism stems from Cleaves’ voice, a boyish, casual, slightly scuffed tenor that belies the Austin singer-songwriter’s 44 years. But more than that, there’s the sense Cleaves cares deeply about his songs’ characters whether they be hookers, hangmen, or pot-smoking roughnecks destined for a bad end.
Musically, the material on the disc runs toward spare, acoustic-based arrangements fitted with leisurely tempos. “Cry”, the opening track, sets the tone. Framed by a strummy guitar, trickling piano, and candlelit percussion, Cleaves laments that “new love is like a diamond, like a twinkling star, but it’s a whole lot of heartache to get to where we are.” As with much of the album, the song’s downbeat lyrics are tempered by the breezy quality with which they’re delivered.
Other high points include “Beyond Love”, a beautiful lullaby (featuring fellow Austin singer-songwriter Trish Murphy on honeyed vocal harmonies) that screams for a high-profile-artist cover; “Green Mountains And Me”, a cloppity, fiddle-driven folk ballad (also featuring Murphy) delivered in the person of a farm wife awaiting the return of her soldier-husband; and “Twistin'”, a dirge-like story song with a hangman narrator who takes us back to a time when capital punishment was a hideous social event, as opposed to a hideous event tucked behind by prison walls.
Cleaves offers up occasional changes-of-pace as well most notably with “Hard To Believe”, a heartland rocker that comes off as a sort of “Born To Run”-lite, and a cover of Ray Bonneville’s “Run Jolee Run” that’s delivered with a cocktail-jazz vibe. For the most part, however, Cleaves adheres to the sentiments expressed in “Temporary”, the final song and the disc’s most striking ballad. “Every love, every dream, every joy, and every sting/Temporary/The lullaby your mother would sing.” It’s a tenderly rendered summation of all that went before.