Album Review – Silas J. Dirge’s “The Poor Devil”

In the bleak midwinter, at a time when death and despair are hanging thick in the air, madness seems to be all around, and the Yuletide mood has all but worn off, perhaps it’s as good of a time as any aside from All Hallow’s Eve to delve into the dark, unsettled side of country music.

Silas J. Dirge is the pseudonym for a singer and songwriter from the Netherlands named Jan Kooiker, whose singular passion in music is to rekindle the Gothic spirit in country and folk that was first captured in the passages of songs by The Carter Family and others, and went on to influence some of country music’s most formidable contributors, from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash.

From murder ballads, to songs of madness and destitution, Gothic country does have its fair share of proprietors in the modern era as well, most notably the overlords of the subgenre such as Those Poor Bastards, Lonesome Wyatt and the Holy Spooks, and the Sons of Perdition just to name a few. But despite the rabid creativity found in these projects, for many audience members, this music may be much too fey and dark for their liking, aside for a Halloween soundtrack.

Silas J. Dirge and his new album The Poor Devil more accurately and reverently revitalizes country music’s Gothic traditions, where you can hear the ghosts of previous compositions welling up in passages and influencing the approach, only rendered in new and original songs. These are songs that convey the arcane and haunting feeling only the best of Gothic country music can, and in ways that don’t just honor and preserve those traditions, but contribute to them, and help pay them forward.

With nothing lost in translation—including the critical ingredient of nuance—Silas J. Dirge offers roots-infused poetry set to sparse arrangements that deftly conveys the hidden beauty behind dark roots music, and why it still deserves a place in the modern music diet, whether it’s a murder ballad mixed with a ghost story in “Flowers on Her Grave,” or the timeless message of temptation in “Devil’s in Town.”

Tasty, measured, and smart is a good way to describe how Silas chooses to clothe these compositions, calling upon a select group of collaborators, and making unfamiliar sounds on familiar instruments to add to the unsettled mood, yet without asking the listener to venture too far down a rabbit hole.

Ultimately, these songs well up from an acoustic guitar, a voice, and a story, just like the primitive country songs of old. Including female vocals by Nicole Schouten on the Spaghetti Western-inspired instrumental “A Land More Kind Than Home” and other tracks help bring them to life, along with Silas J. Dirge being willing to work in some brighter chords upon occasion instead of solely relying on the minor key like so much Gothic music.

Though certainly not for everyone, Silas J. Dirge achieves the balance of advocating for a rather forgotten form of music in an authentic manner, while also conveying its appeal by emphasizing its signature and more accessible attributes. It’s easy to cast off this music as too archaic. But these are often-forgotten country music influences that arguably are on the rise. After all, Taylor Swift of all people released a murder ballad to mainstream country radio, to join one already there by Ashley McBryde in “Martha Divine.” Perhaps something’s happening here we’re not talking enough about.

To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Silas J. Dirge offers a road map back to country and folk’s darker influences, which are coming in handy more and more by creators as “the ties that bind” continue to fray at the ends, and threaten to come unraveled, and creators look to give voice to the dark moods and unsettled thoughts we all harbor.

1 1/2 Guns Up

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