Ryan Bingham has proved to be a mercurial proponent of the Americana genre. Debut Mescalito was a breath of tequila-tinged air, but later records only occasionally hit the heights of his first. Lest we forget however that we are talking about an Oscar winning, Golden Globe toting artist who picked up his accolades for the song The Weary Kind from the brilliant Jeff Bridges film ‘Crazy Heart’. What he has lacked however is that consistently impressive album after Mescalito promised so much. Well, new long-player American Love Song may well just draw a line under that argument.
Opening with the jaunty jive of Jingle and Go, the song is full of authentic visual references synonymous with the genre, but it is its character which is so satisfying. There’s a credible personality presented here which perhaps was absent in the past and this is maintained with Nothin’ Holds Me Down. The track opens with an apocalyptic intro before a gruesome bluesy riff in the vein of Seasick Steve propels the song forward. It’s down and it’s dirty and boy is it fun! I don’t think this is a description that’s been levelled at the New Mexican before.
So far then, we appear to be liberally borrowing from all manner of genres synonymous with the nation. I guess that explains the album’s title, and the bluegrass intro of Pontiacgives way to a Rolling Stones refrain and a rockabilly groove emphasizing this point. Once again, a thickset and hefty guitar sound anchors the march of the song and the gospel tones present on Jingle and Go subtly return. The result is a rousing one, drawing to a close the upbeat tempo of the record up to this point. In its place is a more measured pace as Bingham’s focus seems to shift towards issues of real concern. Throughout these moments on Lover Girl and Beautiful and Kind, Bingham’s voice crackles mournfully.
Situation Station is perhaps the most overtly political song on the record. It’s a brooding and dusty barroom elegy making direct reference to the corrupt pillaging of America by the liar-in-chief Donald Trump. When he sings “Well I been thinkin’ bout the situation, How the world is full of frustration, As the president shits upon the nation, Wipes his ass with all denominations. Turns around and begs for donations, Ridin’ on the back of a poor man sellin’ them lies, lies” there’s no nuance to his conjecture.
Despite Ryan Bingham’s exploration of his nation’s musical heritage, the record does not suffer from a lack of authenticity and when Got Damn Blues Delta sound emerges with its rough-hewn guitars and gospel textures, there’s a credibility to proceedings. The fact that Bingham is revealing the impact of the loss of his parents at an early age, as well as other typical Delta blues topics he knows so well may have something to do with it.
Time for My Mind is a more sanguine moment, tender perhaps but no less enjoyable for it but it sadly precedes the weakest part of the record. Perhaps Bingham has epic, stadium-sized ambitions and maybe that explains tracks like What Would I’ve Become and Blue, but these moments lack identity, are too plodding and fail to achieve their epic pretensions. Thankfully the autobiographical, acoustic tones of Wolves separate these tracks and its sincerity is not forced, possessing darker textures that shimmer.
Album highlight Hot House opens with a raw howl and a bluesy slide guitar, once again providing an authentic tone which Bingham’s vocals enhance as he tells an atmospheric story full of murder, gambling and a life on the run. Abrasive guitar solos and clattering drums make absolution hard to sanction. It’s a calamitous, grimy and immensely satisfying moment on this impressive record.
Stones calms proceedings down after the misadventures of the previous track. Tender strings accompany warm acoustic inflections but the themes are still melancholy without ever becoming saccharine before the simple lament of America perhaps underscores the objective of the entire album. This would have been a good place to end and perhaps Bingham needs to know when to say stop. Blues Lady isn’t a bad song, but it just comes at a point on the album when we’re all a bit spent after the intense dissection of a nation we think we know so well. Ultimately though, Ryan Bingham has delivered that consistently impressive record that we all knew he had in him.