Ben De La Cour – Sweet Anhedonia : Album Review

Smoky poteen from the swamplands, enticing gothic noir of merit, De La Cour offers a vice-like grip on your senses.

Release Date: 19th April 2023

Label: Jullian Records

Format: CD / vinyl / digital

Rehab can do some weird shit to people. Don’t get me wrong, any successful release from the living hell of addiction can only be good for the individual concerned, but the fear is sometimes what it may do for the muse, often deemed a cohabitee with that monkey on the back. That fear, or excuse, shows itself to be, as it usually is, unfounded, this album a further testimony to just saying no, ploughing on regardless.

So who De La Cour? A peripatetic childhood between London and Brooklyn led to a turn as a semi-pro boxer in Havana, before gaining road experience in British doom metal band, Dead Man’s Reef, actually his brother’s band. Jumping ship in New Orleans and then Nashville, he found himself a community of kindred souls, finding, losing and then finding himself again. This is a fifth solo release since 2013, his second sober, his material getting progressively dark, uplifting songs of the night, drenched in a muted soundscape of organic hues. And if the sense of direction brings to mind such figures as Mark Lanegan, Nick Cave and Townes Van Zandt, maybe merged and melded together in some backwoods lab explosion, you’d be up the right alley. Jim White, even, you might say, and that would also be spot on, De La Cour having recorded this album with the Wrong Eyed Jesus hitmaker, who produced it, adding also instrumental garnish.

Appalachian Book Of The Dead is the forbidding sounding opening track, the title and the timbre each a solid pointer as to the territory into which we head. Over a languid strum of guitar, and tinkling sounds from a danse macabre, the vocal oozes an exhausted narrative, with funereal mariachi horns blowing faintly in the background. “Where you gonna go, when you can’t go home“, he pleads, the song a bleak tale of hit and run, hopelessness and a drowning, in part inspired by the book of the same name. Cheerful it ain’t, but the hooks are in. A mandolin tinkles, a fiddle and a musical saw peal somewhere in the mix, and a manic clarinet skitters around the edges, this is widescreen music in sepia-toned black and white.

Lighter is Numbers Game, a duet, written with Lynne Hansen and sung with Becky Warren, the tale of a dead end life on dope, the outcome of circumstances and the cards of the American Dream stacked so high against you. What chance do you have when “lined up waiting at the clinic on your methadone“? Finger picked guitar and the faint whine of steel evokes pure TVZ, Warren’s co-vocal effectively jauntier than the narrative, a fiddle solo adding further the contrast between appearance and reality. It’s a great song, sparking up also echoes of Springsteen’s Nebraska album. That mood seeps also into the next song, Maricopa County, a description of how desolation and decay build into an autonomy of need. Those horns are back, and some heavily echoed occasional thumps of percussion, each adding to the overall bleakness of mood and a dea(r)th of aspiration. With the fiddle of Billy Contrras again offering some spooky touches, and some tail-end echolalia backing vocals, this is a triumph of misery. I love me a dirge, but, jeez, this makes Townes’ Marie seem a lullaby.

Shine On The Highway is a bit more upbeat. Really. Well, a little bit. Very spaghetti western in arrangement, the vocal construction is almost Cohen-esque, the la-la-las minding his moodier fare. Josh Klein’s trumpet is the key instrument on this one. Sweet Anhedonia is then a love song; sorta. Anhedonia is the reduced ability to appreciate pleasure, here ironically “welcomed”, the return of an old friend. And presumably better than appreciating only the opposite? Blank over black. “Sweet Anhedonia, I should have known ya’d be back, with your sickle and shawl.” Pat Hargon’s steel is all the underlining needed. And if Suicide Of town now sounds all too relentless, it isn’t, honest. Perhaps the liveliest song here, a rocker redolent of that fabled middle ground where Steve Earle and John Mellencamp crossed inspirational paths, when each travelling in opposite directions. Grittier than the songs before, there remains the same depth of content, the rhythm section clearly enjoying the opportunity to stretch out, Marlon Patton the drummer and any of a number of possibilities, including De La Cour himself, on bass.

What we haven’t yet had is a morose piano ballad, and this is what we get with Palookaville, and it is a good ‘un, on a par with Newman, R and even Zevon, W. As the brass joins, Klein again, it is nothing short of astonishing. This guy is a talent, a keeper. A tough one to follow, Brother changes tack entirely, a folky tune with, is it, panpipes, alongside some South American sounding strummed instrument. Quite a side step, it leavens the prevailing mood, it’s relative lightweight a pleasing diversion. Which makes for all the more surprise as he morphs then into the stomp and swagger of Birdcage, a prison/army type chant, with trumpet, honking harmonica and banjo vying for attention. The toughest listen here, it’s good but feels an afterthought.

American Mind restores the balance if throwing in also an unexpected new reference. If told this were a Jackson Browne song, it would seem entirely unsurprising. A fabulous song, there is a feel it has strayed in from the wrong album, possibly as a result of the frontload of southern gothic thus far. I’d go further, it is one of the best Browne songs he never wrote. De La Cour’s piano work is masterful, with just the right blend of embellishment around holding the skeleton of the melody together. I am not sure quite what the organ coda adds at the end, other than it does, it really does, should that make any sense. So, how do you end an album that references so many different tangents, yet maintaining a systemic vein of critical commentary that veers largely toward the dark side? Well, how about, from the best song Jackson Browne never wrote to one of the best John Prine never wrote. ‘Cos that is what he does, down even to a bit of kitsch kid talk at the end. That seldom works and shouldn’t. It does. Believe me.

An intriguing album, almost in two parts, the per-apocalyptic first few run of songs, and the latter selection, which offer hope before, maybe after the carnage. Pity the poor reviewer these days, inveigled to always find the good and ignore the bad, whatever is placed before them. Why so? Because this is truly a remarkable album, and one where any hyperbole perceived is real. In the running for best of the year, for sure.

Try some, here’s Palookaville:

Ben De La Cour online: website / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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