“I guess a crow in the yard Is better than bats in the belfry.”
That lyric might serve as a response to those who would question the value of a song cycle that unflinchingly stares into the darker recesses of the human psyche. If the crow represents an unsettling harbinger, Moorer seemingly concludes that acknowledging and facing it is preferable to bottling up the fear.
Human darkness – heartache, grief, disappointment, disillusionment – is a theme with which Moorer is more than acquainted, and her best work mines that territory almost relentlessly. Even her second album, The Hardest Part, recorded while she was still very much a candidate for stardom in Nashville, centered almost entirely around love lost and its aftermath. Similarly, her fourth album The Duel gazed upon a spectrum of turmoil, with no easy conclusions about the future. Particularly with that album, it was tempting to wonder what lie ahead for Moorer.
Shortly after The Duel, the singer divorced her longtime husband and co-writer, Butch Primm, and soon married Steve Earle. Her outlook seemingly brightened on the more upbeat and swaggering Getting Somewhere. Though generally written off as a misstep, it was a bit of a relief to hear Moorer invigorated and flying mostly on her own (Earle did produce the record). It’s not a bad album by any means, but it feels occasionally slight next to her best work. The same might also be said of her 2008 covers album Mockingbird. However, several tracks on that record – Chan Marshall’s “Where Is My Love”, Gillian Welch’s “Revelator”, Julie Miller’s “Orphan Train” – seem to have laid the groundwork for much of what has emerged on Crows. Like the work of any great artist, even Moorer’s lesser works provide signposts of what is to come.
And so arrives Crows, which probably represents Moorer’s most radical sonic shift to date. On a song-by-song basis, it might not at first seem such a departure, but taken in its entirety, the brooding and sustained intensity of the album is unmatched by any of her previous efforts. That may not sound like a record for everyone, and, indeed, Moorer is definitely not pandering to the broadest possible audience. The narcotic, American gothic style of Crows puts Moorer much more in the company of Jesse Sykes or Neko Case (or even latter-day Emmylou Harris) than anyone in Nashville’s recent past. Several critics have rightfully compared her to Bobbie Gentry, and the twisted elegance of “Ode To Billie Joe” can be heard as a musical influence on several tracks, with their haunting, finger-picked guitar figures. However, Moorer largely avoids the character-driven specifics so prevalent in classic country songs, opting for a far more elliptical lyrical approach than she’s ever attempted. My initial reaction to Crows was that it could stand to be more tightly focused. However, subsequent listens reveal how most of these tracks distinctly relate to the song preceding or following it. Discrete thematic threads can be detected, although the overall fabric of the record shares a unified motif.I’m accused – often by my wife – of listening to too much “sad” or “depressing” music. She’s got a point, and I understand that albums like Crows aren’t for everybody. Moorer doesn’t exactly have a reputation for singing about ponies and rainbows, and this record is probably her most harrowing yet. It’s broody, reflective stuff, but like all such art, the true beauty is found in the glimmers of hope that are able penetrate its wounded exterior. With Crows, Allison Moorer has found a sonic palette that nearly perfectly complements her own distinctive struggle between darkness and light.