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Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Big Bad Luv, the fourth album from John Moreland.
“I never meant to be /
Your woe-is-me emergency /
But I ain’t dead yet /
And I know there ain’t no glory in regret” /
-- John Moreland “No Glory In Regret”
There’s a certain kind of hollow glory that comes with being the sad, lonely guy. You can get on social media, and write about how empty your life is, and how “sad” you are eating your Tyson chicken strips in your underwear in your studio apartment all alone and get a bunch of likes. You go to bars to be performatively lonely, and you focus any creative pursuits on that existential loneliness. It’s easy to feel like you’re being heroic, wading through life as a guy too sad and lonely to feel happiness or connection with someone else.
John Moreland used to make records for that guy, because he was at least partially--minus the social media bit and probably most of the actual sadness--that guy. He was a self-described “sad bastard” making brutally efficient folk, country, and Americana records about his general heartbrokedness and sadness. This is a guy who named a record In the Throes and whose best song till his new album was called “Break My Heart Sweetly,” which can leave late night TV shows a puddling mess of emotions.
But that changes in small ways, and big ways, on his fourth album, and best, Big Bad Luv, his debut for 4AD. As told to Rolling Stone, Moreland has had a late blossoming of love, got married in the last year, and is generally in a better place mentally and career-wise--he never thought he’d be doing anything but playing local bars for tips--than when he made his last album, High on Tulsa Heat. Big Bad Luv is like a HD version of all the things that made Moreland an artist to watch; the lyrics are deeply self-reflective and sometimes self-lacerating, the music has that blend of rock and country and folk that sounds like it could have been produced by the greatest bar band you’ve ever heard, and most importantly, the songs hit you in your gut the same time they hit you in your brain.
Now, it should be noted that Moreland doesn’t want Big Bad Luv to be reduced to a “sad guy finds a wife” type of narrative, but it’s hard to ignore the impact love has had on his songwriting, and maybe, that’s been his quest all along: the love he’s been missing is finally here on Big Bad Luv. Look at this passage on the twinkling, hauntingly beautiful “Latchkey Kid”:
“I’ve found a love that shines into my core /
And I don’t feel the need to prove myself no more /
And when I look into the mirror, now I see /
A man I never knew that I could be.”
Or this one from “Lies I Chose To Believe”:
“Now I’ve found me a reason to be a man /
Out on the shoulder with an outstretched hand /
Just a little solid ground to stand /
Is all I ever needed /
So I’ll shout it out from the heavens above /
Hell ain’t nothin’ but the devil’s drug /
And love ain’t a sickness, though I once thought it was /
When I was too surrounded to see.”
Regardless of what narrative is used to sell you on Big Bad Luv, let it be this one: there aren’t three songwriters out right now who are better at writing these kind of songs than John Moreland. Miranda Lambert was right.
There’s a song here about learning to not be such a fighter, and giving up space in arguments doesn’t mean you’re giving up who are (“It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)”), and a song about getting torn the fuck up in Sallisaw, Oklahoma (“Sallisaw Blue”), and the song quoted at the top about not giving into the glory of regret. A bunch of albums out this literal week are ones you should probably spend some time with, but I’m having a hard time just moving on from this album; its charms are too rewarding on multiple listens to let it fall into the “Most Overlooked Albums of 2017” pile. I keep returning to “Love is Not An Answer,” a song about how ultimately love is redeeming, but you can’t let worrying if something is or isn’t love derail the fact that you just want to be with someone. Moreland sings, “Don’t let me be the devil that I sang those songs about,” over a barroom piano, before ending in a refrain of “I need you” as the song fades out into the middle distance. It’s hard to shake the very real fact that John Moreland just went from being the Sad Bastard Bard of Tulsa to being a national treasure in the space of four albums.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.