Eight years ago you would’ve seen Chuck Westmoreland onstage, a busted sprinkler head of awkward and endearing gyrations, gesticulations, and sweat who came, as he put it then, to “rock [your] balls off.”
Eight years ago he would’ve been preaching psycho-sexual pop songs with his band, The Kingdom. Singing conceptually interconnected, insanely catchy nuggets about cars, gender metamorphosis, Dog Day Afternoon, and—somehow—Johnny Unitas in a warbling falsetto caught somewhere between the pearly gates and a truck stop.
Eight years ago. Before he walked away from it all. Before marriage. Before his wife’s cancer fight brought him to his knees. Before the birth of his first child chiseled away whatever remained of that almost-famous man that used to bounce around under the spotlight.
Nearly a decade later, Westmoreland returns with his self-titled solo debut, a powerful album that takes his gift for character sketches and deconstructions and turns the focus squarely, and unblinkingly, on himself.
Chuck Westmoreland is not only a history of his eight-year rock ‘n’ roll sabbatical, but a departure from rock ‘n’ roll entirely. Westmoreland’s work with The Kingdom—hailed by everyone from Spin and The Onion’s A.V. Club to Portland’s dueling alt-weeklies—existed in an ephemeral flight of pop fancy. Chuck Westmoreland has four appendages firmly planted in the unforgiving muck and mire of real life.
“The songs are about the lyrics more than anything else,” Westmoreland explains. “I’m trying to tell personal stories that reveal something terrible, familiar, and hopeful to the listener.”
Owing more to Gordon Lightfoot than Guided by Voices, Chuck Westmoreland shears away all outré influences for a singer-songwriter’s lunch pail full of bare-knuckle blood and guts. Much like Springsteen turned his back on street-racing anthems for noir Heartland story telling on Nebraska, Westmoreland gets to the gritty business of life and death and loss on his solo debut. These aren’t songs about leaving and transformation; these are songs about sticking around in the face of tragedy, setting your feet, and fighting. Bones are cracked open and marrow spooned out with dirty fingers: the good, the bad, and the frustratingly in-between.
Sometimes that darkness is lathered up with sweet, warm harmonies, and slow-rolling rhythms (“Pattern in the Blood”), sometimes it’s laid bare in a creaking, near death rattle (“The Clouds Beyond Us Carry Rain”) and sometimes it’s clubbed over the head with a beer bottle in the heat of a honky-tonk brawl (“Satin”). It’s a riveting journey that at once pulls influences from the high water mark of late-70s singer-songwriters, while sounding in narrative lockstep alongside the current stars of country’s literary revival.
“All these songs are about the character trying to recover something that has been taken from them,” Westmoreland says. “Or the character trying to understand some horrible thing they’ve been given to deal with.”
In Westmoreland’s case, dealing with horrible things means releasing one of the best albums of the year.