John Calvin Abney
September 27, 2019
(Black Mesa Records)
Safe passage, in any case, is a porch light lit, a proverbial lighthouse in the miles of vast darkness. It’s hope. A hope of making it through, one way or another, without losing yourself or what you hold dear.
On the gentle opener to John Calvin Abney’s new album, he draws a line between himself and the expectations of others. The weight of those judgments, wanting to be what others have wanted from him, has always sat heavy on Abney’s heart—the depths of which he’s plumbed for plenty of albums’ past—but here, he’s distilled that pressure, and perhaps his own past posturing, down to the most fundamental human desire.
“I just want to feel good,” he sings softly, setting the tone for the cyclical narrative of Safe Passage, a ten-song exploration of happiness and the self.
Abney is a songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist who has spent nearly 10 years in the studio and on the road in service to the songs of other writers, including John Moreland, Samantha Crain, and Lee Bains III + The Glory Fires, along with a veritable swath of musicians who quickly become friends. Recently, he has also spent time scoring short films and documentaries between sessions and shows.
This vast musical experience has honed his sense of what is essential to songs. He writes when something moves him, when nothing moves him, whenever he can capture a spare moment, and when he senses something that sparks the myriad of musical kindling that sits bundled in his thoughts. If his hands aren't moving, his mind surely still is. He’s a lifelong student of composition and artistry whose influences run vast and varied: Brian Wilson, Sheryl Crow, Nick and Molly Drake, Tulsa Sound pioneer J.J. Cale, Japanese pop godfather Haruomi Hosono, virtuosic guitarist Molly Tuttle, and even acclaimed video game music composers like Shogo Sakai and Yasunori Mitsuda.
Where 2018’s Coyote had Abney grappling with external tragedies, the lyrics on Safe Passage take careful measure of his observations, tending toward opposites—the world’s highs and lows, having more versus doing less, saying yes but meaning no, what he was then and who he is now. The result is a peaceful balance between Abney’s apparent joy for making music and the ever-present emotions of his writing.
Just as Abney had begun to prepare himself for sharing these new songs with the world, a tragic event altered the meaning of the album entirely, in name and in concept: his father unexpectedly passed away on the day he announced the forthcoming release of Safe Passage. Abney was left with the intangible grief and deep confusion that follows a loved one's departure, as well as a record full of songs that began to take on new, broader meanings.
"For the longest time, I really thought this record was autobiographical,” Abney explains. “But since the stark reality of what has taken place recently, I’ve realized that these songs are as much about those around me, including the aspects of life that keep us all from wanting to make connections with others or live intentional lives: loneliness, addiction, fear, worry. My dad was really troubled by these things but optimistic to a fault. I believe he wanted the same for the world, for everyone to have safe passage from these struggles and now, these words mean something much deeper to me than they once did."
In retrospect, album standout “Kind Days” would come to be a song that Abney needed to hear at this time in his life, but didn't know after finishing the last lyric. It touches on 1950s and ‘60s beach folk instrumentation as Abney sings a sweet, swaying lesson in patience and powering through hard times: “Bad days are leaving / No use in grieving / Here come those kind days.”
This sentiment extends to Abney’s harmonica-laden “When the Dark Winds Blow” as it reminds us to be kind to ourselves, especially when life gets rough. He and his album-making cohorts belt during the chorus, “Can’t be everything to everyone you know / Give yourself some grace when those dark winds blow.”
Where the inward-facing lens makes for poignant lyrical moments throughout, as on Abney’s nod and occasional wince at his past self on “Backwards Spring,” it’s when his studio band stretches its legs that the record’s most memorable moments may surface to the casual listener.
“Days of Disconnect” is a plucky, roots rock number where drummer Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk), violinist/vocalist Megan Palmer, and bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker (Drive By Truckers), as well as Abney himself on keys, really shine as a cohesive band—the whimsical flourishes, the chorus vocals, the empty space that gives away to the big finish.
A similarly impactful use of ‘quiet’ leads the album out. The instrumental reprise “Soft Rain After All” ushers in a warm and lilting laugh, elucidating the storm we thought was going to tear through our fields was only a summer shower leading to the sunnier days promised earlier. The delicate and descending piano leads us downward into the sounds of moving water, seabirds, and synthesizers, carrying in comfort (and that very elusive acceptance) in album closer “Maybe Happy.”
“When I cross over from the shadows to the sun you’re not with me,” Abney sings after a flood of orchestral strings. On another day, on another record, this might have served as a final farewell, but here, it’s a realization coming full circle: our days are short, life is both beautiful and tragic, and when we focus on the minutiae of our mornings-by-evenings, all will be well.
Abney’s songs have always had the tendency to look for the light in the face of tragedy, worry, or self-imposed struggle. What’s different this time is he’s found it—not in those he’s lost, the friends he’s leaned on, or even in the heady collection of experiences that he’s lived thus far—but in himself. Plenty of songwriters mine the abject in search of some kind of universal truth; very few find their way home, and John always does. Even when misfortune changes what “home” means to him completely.
As if predicting the trials from which he would be in the midst of recovering ahead of this album’s release, Abney sings, “I know you can’t tell, but I’ve been doing well,” as Safe Passage comes to end. “Maybe happy.”
John Calvin Abney On Tour
September 19 - Outland Ballroom - Springfield, MO+
September 20 - The Blue Note - Columbia, MO+
September 21 - Monarch Music Hall - Peoria, IL+
September 22 - Holler on the Hill - Indianapolis, IN (guitar for John Moreland)
September 26 - Illinois River Jam - Tahlequah, OK
September 30 - Creative Alliance - Baltimore, MD (guitar for John Moreland)
October 1 - The Birchmere - Alexandria, VA (guitar for John Moreland)
October 2 - Beacon Theatre - New York, NY (guitar for John Moreland)
October 4 - Crossroads - Garwood, NJ (guitar for John Moreland)
October 5 - Levon Helm’s Place - Woodstock, NY (guitar for John Moreland)
October 12 - Glass House Concerts - Council Grove, KS
October 18 - Mercury Lounge - Tulsa, OK
October 19 - The Speakeasy - Oklahoma City, OK
October 20 - Meteor Guitar Gallery - Bentonville, AR
October 21 - City Music - Springfield, MO
October 23 - Trumpet Blossom - Iowa City, IA
October 24 - Knucklehead’s (Lounge Stage) - Kansas City, MO
October 25 - House Show Presented by I Went To A Show - St. Louis, MO
October 26 - Magnetic Sound - Nashville, TN~
October 27 - Do Right Man Barbershop - Muscle Shoals, AL^
October 28 - Druid City Brewing - Tuscaloosa, AL
October 30 - Whitewater Tavern - Little Rock, AR
November 1 - Stay Gold - Austin, TX>
November 2 - House Show - Norman, OK
November 3 - Twangville Sunday Social - Dallas, TX
November 4 - Golden Light - Amarillo, TX
November 6 - Surfside 7 - Fort Collins, CO
November 7 - Cold Pale Horse Studio - Salt Lake City, UT
November 8 - Cavalier Lounge - Butte, MT
November 9 - Ear Candy Music - Missoula, MT
November 11 - Baby Bar - Spokane, WA
November 17 - Sparks House Concerts - Medford, OR
November 20 - Tender Loving Coffee - Chico, CA
November 21 - 7th Street Station - Reno, NV
November 22 - Sunny Hill Concerts - Petaluma, CA
November 23 - El Rio - San Francisco, CA*
November 24 - lille æske - Boulder Creek, CA*
November 27 - The Love Song - Los Angeles, CA*
November 29 - Furstworld - Joshua Tree, CA#
December 1 - Satellite of Love - San Luis Obispo, CA#
December 3 - Flagstaff Brewing - Flagstaff Arizona
December 4 - Tractor Brewing - Albuquerque, NM
December 7 - Holiday Hangout - Little Rock, AR
December 13 - The Blue Door - Oklahoma City, OK
+opening for John Moreland
~with Ryan Culwell and Caleb Christopher
^with Will Sexton and Amy Lavere
>with Christy Hays
*with M. Lockwood Porter
#with King Dream and Caitlin Gowdey
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