There is no more ambitious undertaking in the world of country music than to attempt to write and record the conceptualized Western murder album. It’s not just that you have to be able to compose a linear story that can be bridged together across autonomous songs and not lose the arc of the narrative. It’s not just that while keeping that linear narrative together, you also must deliver at least a few songs that can work autonomously from the story to draw appeal as standalone tracks. By bending to the task of putting together a conceptualized work in country music, especially one where murder, freedom, and redemption is the central theme set in a Western period, you’re making your album subject to being judged beside the utmost masterworks of the genre’s history.
Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger has long been considered as the greatest country music album of all time. Even more obscure works such as Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa was considered the best record in 2011 in Saving Country Music’s estimation. In some respects, you could also consider works such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the White Mansions concept album, and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in this discussion, the latter of which went on to win a Grammy for Best Country Album. When you choose to go in the conceptualized direction, you voluntarily succumb to a more distinguished and stringent set of rules and benchmarks.
This is what Canadian country songwriter and performer Lindi Ortega did when she chose to undertake her newest record, Liberty. After living in Nashville for many years, and despite critical acclaim and a strong underlying fan base, Ortega was unable to “make it” in the traditional sense, and decided to move back to Canada. For a period, there was a worry Ortega may quit music altogether. But out of the turmoil of re-organizing her career, an international move and getting married, Lindi decided to lump upon herself the charge of making her most ambitious project yet, channeling all of her fears, frustrations, anger, disappointment, and underlying faith in herself into one concerted effort. If she was going to go down, she would go down giving music every single last exhaustive breath and drop of blood she could muster.
Upon initially delving into this daunting, 15-track, 3-part concept record, it presents some early challenges. The first song released from the album was “Comeback Kid.” With a decidedly more rock style to it compared to the more country-styled singer-songwriter style of her most recent two projects—as well as the addition of hand claps rendered as a polarizing element ever since The Lumineers phenomenon of 2012—if “Comeback Kid” is what we were to expect from Liberty, it may be a rough ride for country fans. Then when you cued up the very first track, “Through The Dust, Pt. 1” with its almost a Disneyland cliché version of Ennio Morricone/Quentin Tarentino influences, the situation became even more worrisome. Early indications sounded like the album needed more grit, and at times Lindi’s voice is too clear, and too loud. After all, what made Willie’s Red Headed Stranger work so well was the stripped down nature of the project.
But you would be a fool to doubt Lindi Ortega’s acumen and competency to see the vision of Liberty through. After all, this isn’t just the latest extension of her professional livelihood. Liberty is Lindi Ortega asserting her freedom, and her will to see her dream of music through despite the adversity others have placed in front of her. Lindi isn’t just sowing yarns here, she’s exorcising her demons in the verses, settling scores through the projection of characters, and putting it all on the line. If she fails, the danger and embarrassment is double.
Like all concept records, Liberty benefits from patience and subsequent listens, ultimately revealing recurring themes and deeper narratives, with sonic signifiers telling the story just as much as the verses. Complex melodies that may take a few passes to reveal their beauty soon bury into your bones until they become addicting, while the ghosts and characters of Lindi’s story start to become as real to you as the events of last week.
All great concept records must work for long cohesive listens while driving through the desert on a road trip, or taking the scenic route home from work which Liberty does. But they also must have takeaway tracks. With songs like “The Comeback Kid,” and the excellent country song “Lovers In Love,” Liberty serves this need as well. In fact some of the more moody tracks probably not intended to be takeaways such as the foreboding “Darkness Be Gone” and the stripped and watery “In The Clear” work as standalone tracks too, and may comprise the best offerings of the ambitious project.
Let’s face it, as much as Lindi Ortega’s singular haunting voice, her unique Gothic style, and her majestic songwriting is worthy of high praise, she has never been an angel worthy of soaring to the heights of the mainstream on delicate wings. Lindi Ortega is a raven. The Canadian Country Music Awards and Dave Cobb-produced tracks were all great for their purpose, but Lindi Ortega is too dark, too creative, and too independently-minded for the big time. She’s too good for them. Instead she’s a Queen and Goddess of the underground—a superstar to the restless and forgotten—and Liberty reasserts her dominance and reign over the dark side of country and roots.
Liberty isn’t just about Western scoundrels and bloodthirsty revenge. It’s about the struggles we all go through to arrest control of our own destinies, to face down demons sometimes of which exist just as much within ourselves as apparitions of the outside world, and ultimately prevail through the perseverance of our efforts and the assertion of our own personal will, just as Lindi Ortega has done in this sweeping epic.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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