Take a trip beneath the seedy underbelly of country music, deep into the underground where artistic expression is paramount over all other concerns, and Gothic and punk influences intertwine with the country and Western ones. It is in this realm where you will find Slackeye Slim, who is a true survivor of the underground. In 2011, he issued one of the underground’s most crowning achievements in his magnum opus, the conceptualized El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa that went on to win Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year, and remains one of the greatest underground country albums of all time.
As the alter ego of Joe Frankland, Slackeye Slim injects a cinematic perspective into Western music, and stokes the imagination with his Ennio Morricone-inspired approach. After an eight year absence since his last album Giving My Bones to the Western Lands—and mercilessly writing, recording, and scrapping songs in an effort to hone and refine his inner voice—Slackeye is back with a new work that summons many of the same sonic landscapes as El Santo Grial. But instead of staking out a fictional narrative, the new album draws from Slackeye’s own personal story for its troubled inspiration.
Scorched Earth, Black Heart is an unmerciful and unflinching foray into the disturbed notions and scar tissue of a soul riddled by familial dysfunction, and burdened by arcane value systems instilled during upbringing, with it all resting on the conscience about as comfortably as a serrated blade permanently affixed in one’s back. Veering from grandiose self-righteousness to severe self-loathing, Slackeye Slim vacates every last grievance in his soul until all that is left are dry heaves of empty emotion in hopes to finally and forever exorcise the traumatically acerbic thoughts and attitudes that impede his forward progress in life.
Suffice to say, this work is not for everybody.
There is no definitive arc to this story, no real happy ending or resolution. This album isn’t simply a case of “sad songs make me happy.” Slackeye Slim gnashes teeth until the enamel is worn down to the nerve. He scrapes at skin until the veins bleed out. He beats his head up against a wall until it’s bruised beyond recognition. Nobody is left unindicted in the Slackeye Slim universe, including himself. Mother, father, brother are all implicated for their transgressions, and the turmoil is expressed without any effort to soften the blows, or obfuscate from the truth.
As Slackeye Slim says in the first song, a snake can shed it’s skin but it’s still a snake. Then for the next 10 songs, Slim tries his best to slither away from his own nature by redressing painful memories that have troubled his soul and weighed him down, no matter how much time and distance he’s attempted to put in between them. Sometimes this comes to life with what feels like stark specificity, such as in “I Took You Up The Mountain” about his relationship with his brother. In other songs such as “Old Farmhouse,” the story may be a bit more fictionalized, if not still underpinned by truth.
Where is the sense of hope behind this work? Slackeye Slim’s seems to hope that by laying out everything in stark relief, it will expunge the evil thoughts that continue to haunt him. Scorched Earth, Black Heart is like a struggle session, a bloodletting, an exorcism. Sometimes it’s painful to witness. But that doesn’t mean it’s not compelling, or ultimately effective and conclusive, if not only for Slackeye Slim, then maybe for those in the audience with their own severe memories and mind viruses who can find a similar unburdening relief through this work.
Perhaps too severe, too obtuse, and too personal to earn a significant audience, Scorched Earth, Black Heart will still find favor with those similarly saddled by a terrible past, offering them medicine through shared experience and deeply personal expression that takes you into the recesses of repressed and troubling memories in places most artists are too afraid and ill-equipped to venture.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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Purchase Scorched Earth, Black Heart from Slackeye Slim