Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.
The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.
The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.
De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.
Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!
The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.
De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.