One runs the risk of being labeled a musical misfit here in 2022 if you purposely ignore the release of new music from one of the premier songwriters of our time, of which Arlo McKinley most certainly qualifies. After all, his last album, 2020’s Die Midwestern won Saving Country Music Album of the Year. But this late bloomer had forty years to write that album, and the praise of John Prine who signed him to his Oh Boy Records label to live up to. It’s often the next release after a big one when you get the sense if a songwriter has the stuff to ultimately sustain.
Arlo McKinley and This Mess Were In most certainly have the stuff to sustain.
Unflinchingly offering brutal dispatches from the most downtrodden and desperate moments of life, Arlo McKinley delivers one body blow after another in songs that are brutally articulate about the level of depression and despondency suffered, yet are poetic in how they’re expressed as to foster empathy, camaraderie, and hopefully, understanding. The underlying philosophy is that being honest and unburdening about his own issues with loss and pain will help construct an avenue for healing in those suffering a similar fate. It’s the “sad songs make me happy” mantra, taken to its ultimate apex.
Arlo McKinley is only guilty of being country by association. He’s a pure singer-songwriter whose songs are expressed more as folk rock or Americana after he steps out of the studio, perhaps especially on this album, though there is superb fiddle throughout to help ground the album in the roots. This isn’t an album of solos and riffs. The song is always put first. But the tracks are decorated with some really excellent and often recurrent instrumental accentuations of the melodies—melodies which happen to be of a superior potency compared to many pure songwriters.
Despite the dour nature of the material, This Mess We’re In is an enjoyable listen, and super immersive. Most everything sits in the mid tempo, but volume and mood is utilized to create the requisite variety. Producer Matt Ross-Spang is considered more of a journeyman producer as opposed to a star one like Dave Cobb or Dan Auerbach, at least to some. But he really understood this group of Arlo McKinley songs, and made sure they were rendered in a way that most endeared them to the audience.
A few may question if the songs here are as powerful as on McKinley’s Die Midwestern, simply from how powerful those songs were. But the musical accompaniment and arrangements behind McKinley are as strong as ever. He has found his sound on This Mess We’re In, and sinks himself into it confidently.
The early single “Stealing Dark from the Night Sky” may seem a little monotonous at first, but patience reveals a superbly illustrative lyric about how darkness craves darkness, which is one of the reasons depression is so hard to shake once it sets in. The duet with up-and-coming Appalachian songwriter Logan Halstead called “Back Home” might have some of the best vocal performances of the album, dripping with emotion, and complemented by fiddle and saloon piano in probably the most country track in the set.
This Mess We’re In also contains a few surprises. “To Die For” shakes lose all inhibitions and turns in a straight-up boom crash rock track. The tinkling piano at the beginning of the title track reminds you of a Kenny Rogers love ballad, and that’s not too far off from what unfolds. Taking a break from the onslaught of acrid emotions throughout the rest of the album, “This Mess We’re In” is a surprisingly sincere love song, despite the sarcastic assessment of the title. This is the hope among the hopelessness Arlo hopes to drive home as the ultimate message of this album.
Written after a period when McKinley lost his mother and best friend, and witnessed some other close friends succumb to addiction, Arlo isn’t participating in cosplay when he writes and sings about such weighty and emotional matters. We’re living amid a Renaissance of songwriters sharing their deeply troubling and distinctly American experiences. Arlo McKinley isn’t just one of many, he’s one of the few elite. This Mess We’re In validates this assessment.
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