Before listening to In the Throes, I’d never heard of John Moreland. Upon spinning the album for the first time, however, I realized rather quickly that he is a songwriter that demands (and deserves) to be heard. Moreland’s voice sounds as if it emerged from some deep, dark, place in the middle of the earth, rugged and gruff, and it’s a voice that sings some of the most refreshingly vulnerable lyrics you’ll hear all year. And by vulnerable, I mean angry and broken and painfully honest. He’s a man who’s been let down one too many times, whether by God or Woman or Life. The songs on In the Throes show a man attempting to fight through his disappointments with words that speak to some hard truths, hoping they might heal as much as they reveal. For the listener, it is indeed cathartic to hear someone sing about these things.
Opening track “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am” touches on failure and loneliness, setting up a theme for the album of beliefs and people once thought known turning into unknowns. “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore” is about how trying it can be for an artist to put himself out there when it seems all anybody wants to hear is the latest radio smash. But ultimately it’s a burden worth bearing: “I can’t remember when I felt this lost/ Took a wrong turn trying to carry this cross/ Why’d I have to go and get blessed with a curse/ I’m chasing death or glory, whichever comes first.” “Blacklist” is about a wanderer with a haunted past, and contains some of the most poignant lyrics on the album: “You said it’s now or never, well I never stop feeling that way/ We get turned around, our spirits break down, we just lie an d say we’re okay.”
In “3:59 AM,” patience is asked of a woman who holds the key to salvation for the sleepless singer, while in “Oh, Julia” he watches the passion drain from a girl’s eyes as she becomes slowly ingrained in fundamentalism. “You gotta kill whatever’s been killing you,” he sings in the chorus. “God’s Medicine” could be about the lure of the confining straight and narrow when going through a rough patch: “It’s times like this I forget why I quit loving you.” Of course, it could also be about a woman. Moreland lays out his idea of the good news and the man he wants to be on the wonderfully optimistic “Gospel,” and in “Blues and Kudzu” he sees the possibility of redeeming the past in the road that lies ahead, though the ride is still shaky. In the middle of it all is “Your Spell,” a standout track for no other reason than the line, “You were the queen of my condition/ I was the king of the ignored/ You talked just like East Texas/ Looked like an angel from the Lord.” Rejection never sounded so poetic. Neither has heartbreak in “Break My Heart Sweetly,” a song that will do just that.
Just as impressive as Moreland’s songwriting is the fact that he plays almost every instrument on the album: guitars, bass, harmonica, organ, piano, drums, percussion. It’s a largely acoustic affair, with a few tracks hitting a country-rock stride and others flourished with the always welcome pedal steel. But it’s the lyrics that will stay with you on this one, haunting you like old religion and old regrets.
Buy In The Throes