Album Review – John Moreland’s “Visitor”

Music might be marked by the presence of sound, but it’s the music of John Moreland that compels the hushing of everything else to allow the quietest and most reflective of moments to prevail. In an era when everyone is talking over each other, the beeps and pulsations of push notifications pursue us during every waking moment, and the loudest and most ostentatious are often rewarded with the public’s undivided attention, John Moreland is a mandate to be subdued, to unplug, to slow down, and to listen.

This is a lesson that John Moreland had to heed himself before composing and recording his new album Visitor, released on April 5th without any run up or formal announcement. After his last album, 2022’s Bird in the Ceiling, Moreland was compelled to take a year off from touring, and a full six months away from his cell phone due to what he characterizes as “doomscrolling” through the world’s dire events. It was in these offline and unconnected moments that the brilliance of Visitor arose.

“We don’t grieve, and we don’t rest. We just choose the lie that feels the best,” Moreland sings in the opening song “The Future Is Coming Fast,” accompanied by his gently fingerpicked guitar. This is the introduction to an album that offers more questions than answers, and leaves much unresolved and weighing heavy on the mind. Yet it still leaves you feeling more comforted than unsettled than before, if only because it assures you that you’re not the only one afraid of silent, empty moments because of the way fears and anxieties seems to fill them.

You get the sense that If Moreland was allowed, he would have released pure silence for one of the tracks to underscore his message. As he conveys in the song “The More You Say, The Less It Means,” it’s the economy of sounds and words that lends to more insight. It’s often the ambiguity of his messaging that gives it such stark impact, allowing each song to be what the beholder wants or needs it to be, as opposed to what Moreland decrees as the author.

It’s impossible to talk about Visitor without contrasting it with Moreland’s previous album, Birds in the Ceiling. Starting with Moreland’s 2020 album LP5, a collaboration was commenced with producer Matt Pence. LP5 was unique because it gently introduced a suite of electronic sounds to help compliment Moreland’s otherwise organic recordings. When this was accepted by Moreland’s audience, Birds in the Ceiling significantly ratcheted up the electronic production to a rather unprecedented level, resulting in a full blown folk-electronica work.

The electronic approach to Birds in the Ceiling was polarizing to say the least. And though strong Moreland proponents held pat behind the idea that the album was well above par and groundbreaking, it ultimately received dramatically less plays that previous titles, and by significant margins. The pursuit of his audience’s expectations, and the criticism of critics and fans is partly what led to Moreland unplugging and taking time off.

The approach of Visitor is much more in line with Moreland’s earlier albums such as High on Tulsa Heat from 2015, and what many consider as his opus heretofore, 2013’s In The Throes. If anything, Visitor is even more austere than these previous efforts, with many of the tracks being solo acoustic offerings, including two solo instrumental interludes.

Moreland performs everything on the album himself, including fiddle, mandolin, drums, and guitar solos, with the exception of an acoustic guitar solo on the song “The More You Say, The Less It Means,” contributed by long-time accompanist John Calvin Abney, and harmony vocals by Moreland’s wife Pearl Rachinsky on “Ain’t Much I Can Do About It.”

It wasn’t that concerned Moreland fans wanted to constrict his creativity, or hem him in via genre expectations when they voiced concerns about Bird in the Attic. It’s that the electronic sounds felt like the antithesis to what the Moreland experience means to many—where the songs and the quiet intimacy they create is the centerpiece. The electronic production felt intrusive and suffocating, like someone’s text notifications or ringer going off in a hall completely hushed from the magic of a John Moreland song.

The track “Silver Sliver” from Visitor seems to speak to Moreland’s struggle between the two approaches to his music, along with the allure of technology overall to distract us from our underlying concerns.

There’s a world of beauty, there’s a world of shit
There’s a world at the end of my fingertip
A digital balm for an analog bruise
Which world do I choose?

On Visitor, Moreland chose the analog world once again. But it doesn’t feel like just the musical/production approach is more advantageous. The overall reset and unplugging that Moreland experienced gave him keen insight into how to address the current moments we exist in. It feels fair to offer praise for an elevated level of songcraft compared to his last couple of albums as well.

The music world is now enamored with earnest songwriters like Zach Bryan, who took the teachings of his fellow Northeast Oklahoman Moreland, and delivered them to the arena and stadium level. It might be Zach Bryan who made them stick, but it was John Moreland who helped plant the seed that has now blossomed into this song-first approach that has dramatically reshaped the direction of country and roots music.

Good for Moreland, he’s turned in a record with Visitor that’s perfect for ensnaring this massive new cohort of song listeners, and to take them even deeper into the expanses of the craft in a way that can open up understanding in the human experience in ways few other things can.


– – – – – – – – –

Purchase from John Moreland

Purchase from Bandcamp

Presence of noise to distract us.

© 2023 Saving Country Music