Music Reviews

posted: June 8, 2017

John Moreland Big Bad Luv

4AD LP or CD
John Moreland

When John Moreland appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in 2016, the Americana singer-songwriter delivered a hushed tour de force with the solo acoustic ballad “Break My Heart Sweetly.” The performance earned an ecstatic response from the audience—no mean feat given Moreland doesn’t fit the typical matinee-idol frontman mold.

Oversized and heavily bearded, outfitted with a ball cap and big glasses, and his arms covered with tattoos, Moreland looks more like one of the “back row kids” photojournalist Chris Arnade sensitively chronicles in word and picture. They are poverty-stricken and working-class Americans who—despite living in decaying urban neighborhoods and collapsing small towns—display depth, insight, and a wounded albeit persevering sense of humanity. Moreland’s gravelly vocals recall several blue-collar rockers who hail from the Rust Belt (Bob Seger), factory town (Bruce Springsteen), and farming heartland (John Mellencamp).

It’s only fitting that Moreland carries forward the venerable troubadour torch. On his fourth solo album, Big Bad Luv, the music takes the form of earthy uptempo rockers and disconsolate ballads. In both gears, Moreland sounds down-to-the-bone authentic. The bracing blues-rocker “Sallisaw Blue” rides along on waves of honking harmonica, woozy guitar, cascading piano, and a slapping beat. “Let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered,” he sings. His scorched-earth voice careens between joy and gallows humor as he references slumming down I-40 and sipping cold medicine.

“Love’s a violent word,” he opines on the pulsing heartbreaker “Old Wounds.” The sentiment informs many songs here, on which affairs of the heart are doomed from the start or sadly contemplated through a rearview mirror. And like a masochist who can’t resist the punishment, Moreland seems inexorably drawn to heartache like a moth to a flame. “I guess I’m dying to let you ruin me,” he sings on “Every Kind of Wrong.” Relationships inevitably involve troubling detours. The beautifully produced “Love Is Not an Answer” is filled with throaty organ chords and a sensuous swaying beat. But the bittersweet words grapple with the vagaries of desire: “Love is not an answer/I don’t need an answer/I need you.”

Big Bad Luv sounds lovely throughout, punctuated by addictive melodies and thoughtful arrangements. A solo fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Moreland’s lone voice carry the melancholy “No Glory in Regret.” “Slow Down Easy” steadies itself on a stately gospel-influenced groove. Washes of echoing electric guitar and tinkling piano notes cascade around crisp drums on “Lies I Chose to Believe.” Lyrics throw shadows across the sun-dappled landscape as Moreland sings the lines “You were a lie I chose to believe” and “Love ain’t a sickness, though I once thought it was.”

As a writer, Moreland stocks songs with shards of perception and carefully wrought turns of phrase. Unfortunately, his lyrics also include some head-scratching images too abstract for their own good. References to an “Armageddon jury” and “a guilty sky” feel more clumsy and confusing than illuminating.

Yet Moreland’s appealingly unvarnished voice and memorable tunes more than make up for occasional lyrical missteps. Best of all, his songs embrace the ragged edges of the heart rather than run from them.

–Chrissie Dickinson