The Arlo McKinley origin story feels like it was written as a composite character for a novel: a 40-year-old Cincinnati musician with a big voice spends the better part of 20 years sucked in the ennui of Midwestern rust belt towns, watching his dreams slip in and out of his fingers, before he somehow comes to the attention of John Prine, another songwriter who knew a thing or two about Midwestern ennui. Prine and his son sign him to their label, Oh Boy Records, and McKinley gets to make his musical debut when most men his age are settling into the middle third of life in a comfortable stasis. They put him in the legendary Sam Phillips Record Service studio in Memphis, and had Matt Ross Spang produce with a heavy-hitting lineup, recording some songs he had in the can for 15 years. The album: Die Midwestern, perfect in about five different ways.
But, ultimately, that all becomes a nice window dressing to the album itself, a bruising, hurt, sad, beautiful, powerful, and affecting 11 song cycle that covers everything from dead-end jobs, opiates, and the fear of being the Most Likely to Never Leave Town to drug dealing and that feeling you have on Saturday night and six beers deep when you feel invincible. It’s an album that manages to be about the small things, but also about everything; in its specificity of feeling rudderless and hopeless in Ohio, it captures that feeling universally. It’s a therapy session for every aimless lost person trying to figure it out. For songwriting, nothing has knocked me more sideways in 2020 than this record.
The central theme of Die Midwestern is laid out neatly in the title track: “I thought that we would set the city on fire / but if we stick around we’ll surely expire / as our dreams slip right through our hands” McKinley sings, over barroom country, lamenting the wasted nights in Cincinnati bars that used to feel so full of promise, but now feel like standing in place. McKinley’s songwriting piles gut punch line on top of gut punch line; each tumble of phrase has the chance to take you out with its brutal honesty and simple directness. On “The Hurtin’s Done” he talks about the ways he masked anxiety and doubt with various substances that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has spent their life living inside their own head. “Bag of Pills” follows a drug dealer who is dealing for bar money to spend on his lover, and who gets stuck in their own slow-moving car crash of a life, and “Gone For Good” has McKinley apologizing for the years a partner wasted on him, while at the same time not knowing how to move on without them and fighting the late night urge to call.
McKinley’s voice carries the weariness he sings about in his songs; he can holler with the best of them, but he can also sing with a lilting growl. On album closer “My Best Friend” he dreams of sharing a beer with the ghost of a friend who died. Where other songwriters might turn a concept like this into something corny, McKinley is more concerned with just making the moment last; he doesn’t care about what the afterlife is like, really, he’d rather just shoot the shit and hug his friend again. It’s another song that manages to be narrow in focus but feels like it speaks to something much bigger. It closes, and like all great albums, you’re left with only one feeling: Another spin of this, and I might figure all of this out. Forty years was just long enough to get this album perfect.
Photo by David McClister