Following a self-confessional songwriter over the course of their career feels like watching an arc of someone’s life play out like a documentary; you follow along as they move along the course of their life, their relationships with themselves and the world fracture, adapt, and evolve. If you’ve been following along for John Moreland’s now five album career, you watched as he went from a guy in the throes of sadness and loneliness (2013’s album was literally called In The Throes), to a guy newly in love and reckoning with his sad-bastard past as a means of self-betterment (2017’s Big Bad Luv). With his fifth album, the straightforwardly titled LP5, Moreland continues that evolution away from the sad and lonely and the newly in love to an album centered around loving yourself, loving your friends, and loving life, even as the wheels of commerce force you into hating yourself. It’s Moreland’s brightest, most tender album, a personal triumph that contains some of his greatest songwriting.
For the first time on LP5, Moreland is joined by an outside producer. Matt Pence, who has manned the board for the Breeders and Jason Isbell in the past, takes Moreland’s acoustic guitar reveries and makes them have a depth Moreland’s more stark back catalog didn’t always have. You can hear Pence’s impact on songs like “A Thought Is Just A Passing Train,” a hazy, smoke tendril of a song, and “Terrestrial,” a song more spacious and spectral than its title suggests. Pence’s touch is also felt heavily in the two glassine instrumental passages here; two pauses to slow down, and feel at peace.
But you don’t go to John Moreland records for how they sound after all; you come for the revelations from the man himself. Moreland has been happily married for a couple years now, and everyone who’s found themselves delivered by the arrival of a spouse who makes your life markedly better can tell you, it starts to change how you see yourself. Your old ways of living no longer cut it; hating yourself can’t be done with the same vigor when there’s someone else in the room who loves you for you. “I’m learning how to tell myself the truth / forget all the shit I used to think I knew / forgive me if I cannot give you proof / I just wanna move you,” Moreland sings on “Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth,” the album’s most straightforward paean to self-veracity. On “When My Fever Breaks,” a song written as a tribute to his wife, he assures that, “I’m laying down my soul / the answers that I can’t know / the pain I thought I’d never let go of.” That’s all place-setting to the album’s most direct track: “Let Me Be Understood,” the song that might as well get to the heart of Moreland’s whole career. He writes songs to feel like someone’s aware of what he’s going through, and all he wants is someone to understand him.
But of course, now that he’s got an image as the Sad Bard of Tulsa, Moreland is also keenly aware that your self-perception can be shaped by external forces as well, which can maybe even undo the work you’re doing on yourself. He’s been blanching against people saying the miss the old him on Twitter and at shows, and on the fiery opening track “Harder Dreams” he gruffly sings “You’ve got ads to sell, so you tell me that’s who I need to be.” Now that John Moreland doesn’t give a fuck who you think he should be, all bets are off. LP5 is a great next step.