By Hal Horowitz
There are multiple truths, uncertainties and life revelations infused in these tracks, all underscored by Moreland’s honesty and artistry.
Admit it, John Moreland fans.
You were a little disappointed and surprised, if not miffed or totally gob-smacked, when your favorite Oklahoma-based, acoustic rootsy singer/songwriter used synthesizers and drum machines to enhance his intimate sagas of life and love for 2020’s LP5. After all, this was an artist so earthy and tech-free that his band was once named the Dust Bowl Souls.
After the initial shock wore off though, it was clear that Moreland didn’t go 80’s techno crazy. Rather, he and producer Matt Pence added synth sounds with subtlety and a delicate touch, enhancing the singer/songwriter’s work rather than distracting from it.
As with any artist who follows his own path, Moreland felt comfortable expanding his boundaries into new territory. Also, the overall response to LP5 was positive, so the pair are working together again for this follow-up two years later. As perhaps expected, the same blueprint is used for these nine new compositions.
Moreland, who has always questioned his place in the universe, continues to share his contemplative views. From a treatise on wealth and its effect on those who accept religious leaders dripping with it on the self-descriptive ‘Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage’, to an inquiry into life on the opening, melancholy ‘Ugly Faces’ with “Does it even matter? Does it ever last? / I didn’t want the answer to the question that I asked”, we are in classic Moreland territory.
Each song boasts immaculately conceived lyrics that can, and should, be considered poetry. It’s clear Moreland takes pains to craft every line, and each tune has at least one revelatory beauty. “You made your house with the world burning down around you / Now that I think of it, I guess that’s what we all do”, he muses on the closing title track, as synthesized birds hum and flutter in the background under a gently picked guitar and Moreland’s husky yet reserved vocals.
On ‘Claim Your Prize’, the artist’s curiosity inspires ours as he sings “So come on down and claim your prize / It’s nothing like they advertise / No one makes it out alive”, sung to a melody with the insistence of a pop song. The synths that wiggle and twitch throughout provide structure without feeling cheap or extraneous, while the programmed percussion that bubbles like caffeinated bongos under parts of ‘Generational Dust’ (“Looking back upon the family / In your grey Nintendo memory”) even helps accentuate its lyricism.
Moreland’s dusky, emotional voice is the essential ingredient in this music. The electronics never hamper the material, generally augmenting its already somber nature by providing understated yet crucial, support. Whether these songs would sound as impressive with more rootsy instrumentation is unclear.
There are multiple truths, uncertainties and life revelations infused in these tracks, all underscored by Moreland’s honesty and artistry. While the album runs less than 40 minutes, these selections gently beckon the listener to return and spend time meditating on the philosophical queries John Moreland seems to have an endless supply of.
8.5 / 10
John Moreland's 2022 album, Birds In The Ceiling, is available from 7/22 via Thirty Tigers. You can purchase the record from one of Holler's selected partners below: