There was a time in music when the storytellers were revered, when they ran the industry above pop artists and industry executives. At our core, humans are storytellers or maybe you’ve never heard of that great book of tales behind every religion. While the earliest forms of recorded music were made up of artists who were relegating tales of yore, it’s an art form that’s been in decline since acts like Kenny Rogers and the Bee Gees partnered up to turn country music over to the recording industry’s whims. So that leaves those who can tell a great tale in song in either a great place or an unfamiliar territory. For an icon like Texas poet Terry Allen, that’s not just where his music resides but also where it thrives. On his new album Just Like Moby Dick, Allen not only stands out in a sea of pop driven country music, he proves that there’s still a place for great storytellers.
It should be noted that many of these songs feature Shannon McNally as a vocalist, and she works well with Allen. This is shown with opener “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists.” The song for starters has an instrumentation level that Allen hasn’t utilized prior to this release. The quieted drums, the way that the vocals are mixed like on traditional country records, it all works. In fact, with the vocals at the top of the mix, the dynamic range of guitar, violin and pedal steel all dance perfectly with the words.
The album plays out like a narrative for a film that hasn’t been made yet. Between the twang of “Abandonitis” or the celebratory introspection of “All That’s Left Is Fare-Thee-Well,” Allen and The Panhandle Mystery Band bring a magical touch that’s been missing from country for decades. Almost like an early Joe Ely album, Allen tells the tales while the music tells its own story and we get the account in the best way possible. While the album holds many tracks that came out prior to the album’s release, there’s still plenty of unearthed gems here.
“Pirate Jenny” opens with a bow across strings before a piano sways in and Allen and McNally begin the story line. Almost like its from a storybook, Allen draws you in with his yarn while the arrangements here have the touches of country music’s past. It’s not dated in sound, just a dearly missed grace that’s been replaced by songs written by thirty songwriters and produced by people with pop credits. “City of the Vampires” has this swampy vibe that has plenty of up moments, yet it’s closer to a song from people of the marsh than that of a Texan. That’s the sorcery here, that Allen can transport you to another place within each track without losing your attention.
Throughout the album, you’re immediately taken to an era of music that we need more of, with lyrics that are as thoughtful as the plucks on the fiddle. The touch of the instruments alone are on another level. Of the twelve tracks, we found favorites that we couldn’t walk away from. “American Childhood I: Civil Defense” has a darkness that only a child could emit while whimsically musing about a world outside of school. “American Childhood III: Little Puppet Thing” has some of the best lyrics you’ll hear that get intertwined with an orchestral Southern charm. The music here has touches of a New Orleans speakeasy, yet it stays within its bounds. But our favorite track here comes on “Sailin’ On Through.” Allen is in rare form here, commanding you to hold onto his words as he sings about the final days of an old storyteller. The highs, the lows and the ease of letting go and just making time stand on your schedule seem just as poignant as when those before him sang of similar ideals. Just Like Moby Dick is an album full of country the way it used to be being sung by a great storyteller. Where music and words matter and chart positions aren’t figured in when the songs get recorded. Long live the great storyteller.
Just Like Moby Dick is available physically from Paradise of Bachelors. It can also be purchased in all digital music outlets or streamed on all streaming services. Terry Allen will be on tour starting May 21 at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY until May 23 at City Winery in Washington, D.C.
Image Credits: Photo by Pino Bertelli.