Album Review – Ryan Bingham’s “American Love Song”

There was a time when we looked upon the drunken poet Hayes Carll, and the rugged cowboy Ryan Bingham, and saw the future of alt-country laid out right there before our very eyes. Both were outstanding as writers and performers. Both carried such promising futures. Both were signed to Lost Highway Records, which had the clout of a major label, but was cool enough to name itself after a Hank Williams song. The burgeoning movement of Americana was in good hands moving forward.

Ryan Bingham embodied everything we wanted from a new generation of roots artist. He’d been in the rodeo. He’d busked for ragged dollars. He had the grit of his hometown of Hobbs, New Mexico pock marking his gravelly voice in the greatest way. He was dripping with authenticity, like the personification of a cowboy poem even before he put pen to paper himself, and had the great Marc Ford producing his early records who understood how to capture and express the magic of Ryan Bingham unadulterated.

Later this magic was recognized by T Bone Burnett, who produced Bingham’s 3rd record Junky Star, and got Ryan’s song “The Weary Kind” into the movie Crazy Heart, eventually winning him an Oscar. The future was very bright for Bingham, and for independent American roots music by proxy. But the more exploratory, self-produced effort, Tomorrowland, created a speed bump in Bingham’s momentum with mixed reception and an inconsistency we hadn’t heard from him before. He also decided to go completely solo with his independently owned Axster Bingham Records, which left him on the outside looking into the industry compared to Lost Highway, who shuttered shortly after his 3rd album.

Ryan Bingham rebounded in public perception with his 2015 album Fear and Saturday Night, which captured the raw, sweaty emotion of roots-infused classic rock better than most. But where his previous two records had debuted in the Top 10 on the Country Albums charts, Fear and Saturday Night didn’t register at all. An inconsistency in his career and output put Ryan Bingham in a weird place.

“Inconsistency” is also a fair way to characterize the material of his latest record, American Love Song. It’s not bad, but fails to create a cohesive expression and make a strong case for itself. The 15 songs could have easily been whittled down to 10, or maybe even 7 or 8, with a few more quality efforts replacing some of the weaker tracks, or more time spent on the tracks included to tighten up some of the songwriting, or to make a more sonically unified effort. Despite some strong tracks, as a record, American Love Song feels directionless, and weighted down with fat.

Ryan Bingham has long since moved on from being considered “country” by anything more than close approximations. If American Love Song had any blanket statement to make for itself, it would be as a blues album, with some songs being so steeped in blues themes and progressions—songs like “Beautiful and Kind,” “Got Damn Blues,” and “Hot House”—they feel stereotypical, or derivative of the discipline as opposed to inspired by it and trying to pay it forward.

Throughout the record, Ryan Bingham seems to cede his own voice for that of an old blues man, singing with an affected accent about 15-inchers in his trunk, screaming “Jumpin’ Jack Flash in my Cadillac!” and “I got the blues, you damn right!…” eroding the authenticity that’s behind much of the appeal in Bingham as a performer. At other times Bingham does sing in his own voice, even trying to find a more sweet style and tone. But these moments feel like the exception as opposed to the rule.

The songwriting of American Love Song never really sets a standard for itself. At times it feels like you’re listening to placeholder lyrics derived from very well-worn themes as opposed to the results of poetic inspiration. These themes are often relatable, but rarely dazzle you with some keen insight, or clever turn of phrase. Instead, it’s almost like Bingham relies on brute force to make these songs appealing, sometimes outright screaming verses. During certain moments of this record, the lyrics and stories are just difficult to make out.

A lot has been made about the political aspect of this record, with left-leaning music journalists wanting to portray it as an anti-Trump master work lashing out at American injustice, while some conservative listeners have sworn it off without listening to a note, which is just as misguided. American Love Song most certainly delves into politics, but both sides are probably over-emphasizing the gravity of the political implications.

The political songs of American Love Song can be compartmentalized to a handful of tracks, though granted, Bingham doesn’t bless these tracks with the allegory or nuance that most any good song employs to get its point across. Instead he just sort of fumbles forward with bellicose pronouncements that don’t fit the original plot of the song. Bingham will be belting out some straightforward blues song, and then all of a sudden veer right into political commentary that doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason for being there aside from being a steam valve for Bingham’s political vitriol instead of the authentic perspective of the story’s character. Granted, these lines certainly will get a certain segments of the voting population pumping their fists and singing Bingham’s praises, and that’s what he’s hoping for with this record. But it will be at the expense of other fans.

There is an exception to the lack of political cohesiveness on the record, specifically the song “America,” which compared to the rest of American Love Song is sweet and subdued, thought-out, poetic, and poignant. Regardless of your political leanings, seeing America as a place for everyone and a beacon of hope should be something we should all be able to agree upon.

But in the other political moments on this record, Bingham falls into the trap of portraying America as this land of resident evil, seemingly undercutting the reason why so many would flock to its shores looking for safe passage in the first place, fleeing from regimes all around the world that are way more repressive than anything America could ever boast. Despite its obvious problems, America still holds firm to tenets such as free speech that allow someone like Bingham to make statements of dissent, even if sometimes they feel more like fashionable pronouncements guilty of pandering as opposed to an accurate portrayal of things.

But through all these problems and inconsistencies, American Love Story delivers on numerous occasions in songs that are hard to not get sucked into. “Nothing Holds Me Down” sends the blood pumping. You get swept up by the cut of a country fiddle on “Pontiac,” and stay for the smooth groove Ryan Bingham sticks for the rest of the song. Along with the sheer volume of tracks, three songs clock in at over 6 minutes. A couple of these could have been left as scratch tracks, but the moody “Blue” seems to mostly capture what Bingham was going for.

It’s hard to point an ugly finger at any specific song of American Love Song and say it’s bad. It just fails to ever find the right mood to mix with the right set of lyrics to soar like you want it to. Not to throw producer Charlie Sexton under the bus, but the album feels like it needed a bigger vision for itself, with less songs and more trial and error on the ones that made the final cut.

If nothing else, this album will give Bingham and good new crop of reinforcements in the live show, with songs that will probably work better when you can see Bingham testifying on stage. That feels like the reasoning behind many of these tracks, even if they fail at capturing that live energy in the recorded context properly. Live, Bingham remains a monster, and American Love Song should help keep this momentum going, while the record will slide in somewhere as the 3rd or 4th best in a pretty impressive career.

Ryan Bingham still stands as one of the most preeminent figures in Americana. American Love Story likely won’t change this, and the political aspects of this record may even go to compliment his standing in the space. It’s not a bad record at all. But if you’re looking for an effort that is more career defining, perhaps listen to Hayes Carll’s latest What It Is released on the same day. It’s something that feels more purposeful, enriching, authentic to the artist, and lasting, while American Love Song feels like something you’ll thumb past when reaching for a Bingham record, or only select for a few songs.

1 1/4 Guns Up (6/10)

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