Haunted Like Human – Tall Tales & Fables: Album Review

Engaging, honest, intimate and haunting.  An inspired third outing for the Nashville duo, Haunted Like Human.

Release Date:  15th October 2021

Label: Self release

Formats: CD / Download / Streaming

First – an introduction.  Haunted Like Human are a Nashville based duo comprising Cody Clark (multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter) and Dale Chapman (lead singer and lyricist).  They hooked up in a Nashville coffee shop in 2017 after Cody had driven from his Oregon home in search of a collaborator.  A veteran of local punk and metal bands, Cody went on to study at composition at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho where he focused upon classical guitar before later switching to steel-strung acoustic.

The pair specialize in what they describe as “Storytelling songs… lined with nostalgia and soaked in Southern gothic lore” and that’s a pretty good description.  Their songs are intimate, honest (often brutally so), atmospheric and, sometimes, rather unsettling.  As lyricist Dale is keen to emphasise: “When we write, we will beat a couple of lines to death for two hours.  In the end, it gets us to something we’re really proud of.”

Tall Tales & Fables is the duo’s third recorded outing and follows their debut album Ghost Stories (2017) and the follow-up EP Folklore (2018) and it’s an album that will appeal to anyone who appreciates well-structured songs with intriguing lyrics, excellent musicianship and sparse yet well-planned instrumentation.  The songs are, in general, built around Cody’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar, with an added richness from a small string section – violin, cello and double bass all contribute to gothic, wistful feel that permeates many of the songs on Tall Tales & Fables.  But, perhaps, the outstanding feature of this excellent album are the vocals.  Dale sings with a beautiful, clear, rich voice that has English folky overtones and reminds me a bit of Sandy Denny in her prime.  Dale and Cody harmonise well and this aspect of the vocal delivery is used subtly and sparingly to give emphasis to the storylines when it is most needed.

And those storylines are fascinating…  a recurrent theme throughout the album is a desire to move on, to find a life that is better than what’s currently on offer, to get away from a soured relationship or to rediscover lost contentment.  There are also observational songs that comment on those that the world has left behind and a couple of songs that bravely and honestly confront issues such as mental wellbeing and forbidden love.  Difficult issues are definitely not avoided here…

You realise, right from the outset, that this Haunted Like Human album is no ordinary album.  The opening line to the opening track, Afterlife: “People only ever write the nicest things on headstones,” made me prick up my ears and prepare for what I was certain would be an interesting ride.  And I was right!  The gothic imagery is there from the beginning, amongst the fingerpicked guitar, light harmonies and subtle strings and Dale sends shivers down the spine as she sings the refrain “Darling don’t go digging up graves.” 

There are moments of light relief amongst the heaviness and Bruised Feet is the first such example.  Guitar, fiddle, banjo and a bass drum beat give the song a skiffly feel whilst the lyrics are the album’s first to allude to an escape and a search for new horizons.  The themes of escape and searching are continued in the excellent City By The Sea.  It’s a sombre song – soft and intimate.  Frustration and futility are both conveyed by the refrain “Wherever you are, dear, could you give me a sign, Could you write it in smoke, could you leave on the light.”

Dale gives a particularly impassioned vocal to express yet more resignation and futility in the quiet Georgia, before we get to Ghost Town – the album’s second single (released on 20th August).  Ghost Town is a particular highlight, with lyrics that consider what happens to a place that needs to be left behind.  As Dale explains: “The song ended up playing with images both of ghost towns, empty places that used to be full of life, and a town full of ghosts, empty shells of people that needed to leave this place and pass on to whatever life is next.”  It’s a message that I found to be particularly poignant in today’s society as progress, or faux progress, creates such places – and people – with increasing regularity ands permanence.  The tune captures, once again, that vivid gothic imagery, with the broody strings adding to the sense of hopelessness.

Things lighten up considerably as strummed guitar and shuffling drums get the bouncy Ohio underway.  Another song that expresses dissatisfaction and a desire to move on, Ohio is probably the most accessible song on the album.  The duo exercise their rockier instincts on the gritty, unsettling, Run Devil Run – all dark harmonies and swirling violin – before exploring grander, widescreen territory with the string-drenched September, an interesting song that likens the fading colours and encroaching cold and damp of September with the critical stage of a failing relationship.

First single, Stay (released in July of this year) is, for me at least, the album’s absolute highlight.  It’s an intensely powerful song, packed with tense vocal harmonies and lush strings, and lyrics that confront the difficult subject of a relationship fractured by mental illness.  Lyrics like “Somewhere between all the wine and the chemicals, I am awake in my mind; Somewhere between all the whiskey and the medicine, I’m drowning…” and “I’m often unkempt and unreasonable, but I swear to God this is me trying” pull no punches; they’re lyrics that left me reeling.  In Dale’s words: “[The song is] about looking your demons in the eye, laying all your cards on the table, and reckoning with the damage that’s been done.  In the bridge, it’s all stripped down to two people pleading for the other not to give up on them, which I think is so uncomfortably honest and powerful.” The lyrics and emotions are so raw that, I suspect, you have to have experienced such a situation in real life to be able to convey them so effectively.

The message in penultimate track, Things Fall Apart, is far simpler and even offers cause for cautious optimism.  A quiet anthem with strummed guitar and tight vocal harmonies, the song recognizes the fragility of life but offers hope that, with trust and inter-dependency, the blows that lurk around every corner can be anticipated and softened.

Current single Whistling Tree wraps things up in style.  Dale’s lyric deals with the joy and danger of “forbidden love,” identifying the eponymous tree as a secret meeting place for the conspirators.  Dale says: It’s one of the most personal songs I’ve ever written, and it took a year.  The inspiration came from a good friend of mine who attempted suicide in high school because her parents were making her life a nightmare trying to keep her away from her girlfriend.  As I really came into my own identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this story felt more and more important to tell.  The image of the tree is a place of life and death, love and hate, all wrapped into one.”  So – another brave, powerful song, this time presented as soft, intimate verses and loud, raucous choruses, peppered with strings, percussion and handclaps.  It’s another amazing song to top off a pretty amazing Haunted Like Human album.

Listen to Stay – the album’s first single and a track from the album – here:

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