It seems that Pokey LaFarge albums have been ticking off particular sub-genres of what may loosely be called Americana since his self-released debut in 2006; with history lessons in jazz, ragtime, blues, swing and folk at various points in his career. His latest release Rock Bottom Rhapsody is a bit looser with how it identifies with these styles and the result is mostly a successful one. If previous albums felt like a simulacrum of American musical traditions then Rock Bottom Rhapsody is a much more personal construct of these styles and whilst the record may lack the elaborate excesses of previous releases, there is a sense that we are hearing a more authentic Pokey LaFarge in the process.
The record is bookended by the title track, a mournful string overture and epilogue which reveals the darker, more cynical tone. It comes as no surprise then to find out that LaFarge produced the record after emerging from a particularly destructive time in his life. “I was giving too much power to darkness, and I got in too deep, and I made some bad decisions. The reality of the situation is that I hit the closest to rock bottom that I ever had, and I’ve definitely had some hardships in my life” and the self-deprecating brilliance of ‘End of My Rope’ perhaps illustrates the dominating drift of this record. If the blithesome musicality is a tad deceptive on this track then there can be no uncertainty about ‘Fuck Me Up’, which clatters into view with its rattling piano and a stomping and stamping percussion that scaffolds this funeral march of a song. When LaFarge croons Well, I might go get drunk and stoned / Cause it’s better than being armed and crazy / If I never come back, wherever I end up at / Is where I was supposed to be, there can be no argument about the state of mind that led to this record.
If this all sounds a bit bleak, please don’t be discouraged. The record is still an imaginative tapestry of the wonderful roots music of America and ‘Bluebird’ is a quick-time jaunt amidst a fiery relationship before ‘Rock Bottom Reprise’ briefly reminds us of the record’s raison d’être. The smoky Tom Waits flavour of ‘Lucky Sometimes’ is equally lugubrious.
The album’s shortcomings emerge at its midpoint when a slightly cloying sentimentality begins to emerge and the more innovative musicality of earlier tracks is traded for more simplistic rhythms and melodies. Thankfully, these misgivings dissipate and the album’s personality re-emerges in the final few tracks. The timeless quality still remains but the more subtle melodies draw attention to LaFarge’s elegiac lyrics and the heartbreaking narrative of ‘Lost in the Crowd’ is a sombre highlight on a record where you could argue that the real Pokey LaFarge has emerged for the first time.