28 December 2017

Land of Doubt by Sam Baker

Sam Baker's music is relatively new to me, and it has become an obsession. I first heard of him when I heard part of his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 2014 while driving somewhere, and I was captivated, but for one reason or another, I didn't remember to seek out any of his albums. Then late this fall, looking for new stuff to listen to, I happened upon his recent album Land of Doubt, which wrapped itself around my consciousness and wouldn't let go. "Who is this guy?" I thought, imagining he was a grizzled old feller something like the Woodsman in Twin Peaks. I soon discovered he was the guy I'd heard on Fresh Air whose music I had wanted to listen to but then got distracted and didn't. Land of Doubt was different enough from my perception of his earlier music that I hadn't connected that musician, who had both a powerful personal story and a powerful talent as a singer-songwriter, with this one.

It's rare that I write about music, because I don't feel any real ability to explain why I like what I like. (That's one of the things I value music for: its mysterious appeal.) Nor do I have any knowledge of the world of the music business, its production, promotion, distribution, etc. But I feel compelled to write a few words in praise of Land of Doubt because after I discovered it, I expected there must be lots of reviews of it, interviews with Baker about it, award nomination for it. Baker's previous album, Say Grace, got him on Fresh Air and landed as number 5 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 10 Country albums of 2013 (don't let that "country" appellation put you off — if he's country, it's in the manner of John Prine, Townes van Zandt, and Steve Earle, not Garth Brooks). But as far as I can tell, there were only a handful of reviews — Austin Chronicle, No Depression, Folk Radio UK — and while the reviews were positive, they didn't lead the album to be included on any best-of-the-year lists that I've found except for the marvelous, eclectic list from Ted Gioia. (If I were a musician, that would be one of the lists I would most aspire to be on, since the choices are always wide-ranging and thoughtful.)

Given how much music is out there, it's hardly surprising that great work fails to get noticed. When the work is as compelling as Land of Doubt, though, that failure galls. Particularly for an audience that gravitates toward roots music, Americana, alt-country, Tom Waitsy grungefolk, whatever-you-want-to-call-it — for that audience, this album ought to be addictive.

Each of Baker's previous albums is full of affecting, carefully-crafted songs, and the albums are all organized carefully. But even more than the others, Land of Doubt feels to me like an album in the old sense: a work that shows itself off best when its songs are not shuffled around, when the listener is able to move from one track to the next as if they are movements in a symphony. To a friend who bought the album on my recommendation, I said: "Listen to it loud. Alone. In a dark room." I said this not because it's a dark and depressing album that ought to be listened to in properly dark, depressing circumstances, but because there's a subtlety to its sonic details that can be cherished if the album is given full attention. I don't have a sense that many people take the time truly to listen to music anymore — I don't do it as often as I should — but rather that we have become accustomed to music as an accompaniment to other tasks, a background sound to fend off dreaded silence.

One of the elements of Baker's singing and songwriting that I find captivating is the way he often emphasizes single words and notes. His songwriting has frequently been called "spare", and while that description isn't always accurate, there are some songs where it really is true, the lyrics like an Imagist poem. Baker has the limited vocal range of a lot of performers in his style and genre, but unlike many, he often emphasizes the limitations, his phrasing becoming deliberate, stiff, sometimes more spoken than sung, which turns his most lyrically simple songs into something like meditations. Consider "Leave", for instance. Here are the first verse lyrics as given on his webpage:
leave and you must
you have squandered my trust
you may not stay
you may not stay
please go
"Squandered" is by far the biggest word in the entire song, a song written mostly in monosyllables. The singing is halting, each word feeling difficult, like the words of someone with his hands balled into fists and his teeth clenched. Such a performance could easily feel silly, and instead of experiencing the difficulty of the ennunciation, the sheer pain of the situation, we might just laugh at how overwrought and mannered it is. That's not at all my experience of this song, though, a song that becomes like a moment in a late play by Beckett, something both beguiling and moving.

Similarly, the later song "Peace Out", which is like a villanelle or a pantoum in the way it builds meaning from repetition. I remember listening to it the first time (a bit distracted, using the album as background music to something) and thinking it was nice but kind of thin. Then on a later listen, one when I was less distracted, its repetitions hooked deeper into my consciousness and the whole expanded as a great short story does, its fractal details spiralling out into a universe.

Baker is good at storytelling, too, though. "Same Kind of Blue" makes this most apparent. (It's a Vietnam War veteran song in the same league as Prine's "Sam Stone".) Here, the simplicity and careful use of repetition are in service to a whole life story, and, in many ways, more than one, because at the end of the song, Baker movingly links the story of one veteran to another from a different war, and if you attend to what is going on throughout this story and its music, the effect is panoramic.

Then there's "The Feast of Saint Valentine", the song that when I first listened to the album made me shift all my attention over to it. It's one of the most musically lush and dramatic songs on the album, so it's no surprise that this one should have grabbed me while I was doing whatever else it was I was doing. Now, after listening to it countless times, the drama still holds, but I am also captivated by the details, the way the song builds to climaxes and then pulls back from them, and the way the lyrics use the repetition of L rhymes (particularly through the repeated line "a card says wish you well") to structure the whole, but not predictably — that moment after "in blue and green pastel" always gets me because we've been set up to expect the next L sound soon, and Baker defers it in his performance with a bit of humming.

I could go on and on about the way the songs fit with each other, the affecting details of the orchestration, the coiled restraint so much of the album shows, the choice to open the album with a deceptively simple track that on later listens proves to be as complex as everything else here — I could go on, but I will not, because my purpose here is simply to say: Give this album a couple careful listens and it might just entrance you as it has entranced me.