Over the Rhine: “The Long Surrender”
A new Over the Rhine recording is always a fairly momentous thing in my life, and my enthusiasm for each new release– different as they all are from one another, and across-the-board excellent– has traditionally dictated that I briefly declare each one to be my new Favorite, a title that lingers for a few weeks, perhaps months (I think Ohio held on to the belt for a good year or more) before I am forced to admit that picking the best of the bunch just isn’t conceivable, perhaps not even desirable, and I go back to saying that, as much as I love each one of them, Good Dog Bad Dog will always be my true favorite, for sentimental reasons more than anything else.
Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist– who perform as Over the Rhine with a rotating cast of extras– have been at this for twenty years now, and by my count, they’re up to thirteen or so studio albums, to say nothing of a fairly major array of live recordings and archival releases. The latest is called The Long Surrender, releasing officially in the early weeks of 2011, and I dare say that this time, they really made my new favorite Over the Rhine album. Yes, I know how all this must sound. But I’m sticking by it.
Certainly, it is the best-sounding Over the Rhine album, something that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one; the album marks their first collaboration with Joe Henry, a record producer whose work always favors warmth, intimacy, and simplicity as a road to something resembling the Truth– a sensibility that seems custom-built for Linford and Karin. One might be less surprised that Henry and OtR have found each other than that it took them so long to get around to it; the universe has its own timing for this sort of thing, I suppose. But what astounds is how sympathetic the pairing is– for someone who has no history with this band to speak of, Henry understands what makes for a great Over the Rhine album with remarkable clarity, and he has aided them in creating just that– not a departure so much as an album that embraces the band’s essential Over the Rhine-ness and therefore feels, immediately, like their most essential work.
Which is all to say that this isn’t quite a curveball– it doesn’t lunge out of the same left field that produced the oddball classic Films for Radio, or even the festive Trumpet Child— but rather it is a deepening of the sound of albums like Good Dog Bad Dog and Ohio, albums that chase the elusive spirit of Americana without seeming to care so very much about whether they actually catch it; the fun, it seems, is in the pursuit. Even so, this is their most seamless and integrative album, more graceful than anything they’ve done in its elegant conjuring of country, folk, gospel, and jazz.
They made the thing in Henry’s basement studio, a geographic locale that seems to possess oddly transformative powers. I suppose I ought to give some of the credit to the session players, particularly the rhythm section of Jay Bellerose and David Piltch; though Linford and Karin always find their way back to the tried-and-true, melancholy slow-burner dynamic– it’s what they do best, after all– those songs, sometimes so brooding on their best albums, achieve a certain degree of lift-off here, a lightness and a freeness that goes down to the foundation, specifically to the light touch summoned by Henry and his players. If you really want to hear just how much magic Henry brings to these things, listen to the Ohio track “Idea #21” side-by-side with the new recording “Only God Can Save Us Now.” Both are, basically, gospel songs, but, stacked beside each other, it’s amazing how comparatively forced and leaden the former sounds compared to the more organic new material.
Henry adorns these slow-burners with the appropriate level of detail, always just enough– there are a couple of sax parts from his son Levon, a duet with Lucinda Williams, gospel ensembles on a couple of songs, some lovely steel guitar from Greg Leisz. What he doesn’t do is turn this into anything other than an OtR album. He understands, for instance, that Karin is a staggeringly gifted singer– she is, in fact, the singer, in my mind– and this album feels like a showcase for her more than any of the group’s past albums; she kills on “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart,” a jazzy little torch song that’s totally in her wheelhouse but is no less impressive because of it. But I think her most mesmerizing work here is in a song called “Rave On”– a number that’s written as a rock and roll song, with a title that suggests both a road song and a tip ‘o the hat to Buddy Holly, but performed as something else entirely. Henry captures it as a sort of holy moment where time seems to stand still; there’s an ambient quality to it, but also a pulsing intensity and some remarkably tactile, sensual pleasures to be found in the stand-up bass and percussion. It’s unclassifiable, and, as a sound recording, I think it’s the band’s best moment on file.
Elsewhere, there are links to the band’s past work, especially in the opening number, “The Laugh of Recognition,” a bridge back to the “Born” days. There is a song, “The King Knows How,” that swings like rock and roll and stings with gospel fire, and stands apart from anything else recorded by either OtR or Joe Henry. There are two tracks with lyrics from Henry which are, again, rather amazing for how in-tune with the Over the Rhine aesthetic they are. Without consulting a list of songwriting credits, you won’t be able to tell which two they are. There are songs that reveal just how fine Karin and in particular Linford have become as lyricists; in the early days, Linford’s lyrics were almost too clever for their own good at times, but here he has a song called “Infamous Love Song,” a long rambling thing (in the best possible sense) that condenses the history of the band into something a little cheeky and full of grace. Leonard Cohen would have a tough time wrapping his head around it. On a related note, I think Tom Waits would be proud to consider the album finale, “All My Favorite People,” as a sequel to his own gospel homecoming number, “Come On Up to the House.”
But again, The Long Surrender is noteworthy not for how it deviates from the Over the Rhine template but for how it refines it, and to that end, this is, like all their albums, an album about Over the Rhine– and I dare say an account that’s every bit as intimate as Drunkard’s Prayer. No small feat. Of course, saying that it’s an album about Over the Rhine is just another way of saying that it’s about marriage, about art and the creative life, about brokenness, about transcendence, about grace. That the album begins with “Laugh of Recognition” is fitting; it’s a song about abject failure, I think, and that is, on some level, appropriate for a group that has never achieved the level of fame they so richly deserve, a band who once recorded an entire album chronicling a near-divorce. It is indeed a moment of recognition, of all the roads that have lead them here– and it sounds also like a new beginning.
The characters in these songs are broken figures– see the beguiling mash-up of tragedy and farce in “Only God Can Save Us Now,” a song set in what I reckon to be either a retirement home or a mental ward– and, pretty frequently, those characters are Linford and Karin themselves. “Infamous Love Song” speaks to their history with humor and wit, but also candor– it’s a song about the artist’s life in which the search for transcendence often takes a back seat to mere survival. “Oh Yeah, By the Way” might actually be their saddest lyric ever, and that it is a duet vocal feels like a further twisting of the knife, and an indication that the anxieties and fractures of the Drunkard’s Prayer album are never entirely vanquished, in this or any marriage. But the most moving thing here– and not just because it boasts a vocal from Lucinda Williams at her most vulnerable and human– is “Undamned,” a song second, perhaps, to nothing but “I Want You to Be My Love” as the group’s simplest lyric. It’s a song about fallen human beings doing the only thing they can do– falling back into the arms of unconditional grace– and questioning whether it is a love song or a prayer seems to miss the point of it altogether.
All the threads of the record are woven together in the finale, a surprisingly jaunty number called “All My Favorite People.” I hear a lot of love in this one; it isn’t a mere document of broken humanity so much as it’s an invitation, to fellowship and shared experience, to the patient awaiting of grace. The refrain is beautiful: “All my favorite people are broken/ Believe me, my heart should know.” It’s a song of experience, another laugh of recognition, a peaceful, coming-to-terms moment, and it’s followed only be a brief, instrumental benediction, because no further words will suffice.