John Calvin Abney
September 27, 2019
(Black Mesa Records)
On the gentle opener to John Calvin Abney’s Safe Passage, 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 self acceptance and grace.
In addition to his own records, Abney is a multi-talented sideman who’s spent considerable time on the road and in the studio in service to other artists. His experience as an instrumentalist, arranger, and producer has honed his sense of what is essential to songs, and in those moments of creation and in the silences between, he is a keen observer, the fruition of which surfaces in his own writing.
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. He is seeing the finish line, the silver lining, allowing himself preemptive celebration in the midst of difficult times.
“Kind Days” touches on 1950s and ‘60s beach folk instrumentation, a sweet, swaying lesson in patience: “Bad days are leaving / No use in grieving / Here come those kind days.”
Abney reminds us to bring that kindness onto ourselves in “When the Dark Winds Blow,” a harmonica-laden standout where 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 some poignant lyrical moments, 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 surface.
“Days of Disconnect” is a plucky, fun, rock ‘n’ roll 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 setback—the soft rain is perhaps an interruption to the sunnier days promised earlier—but then the sounds of moving water carry 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’ve served as a kiss-off or goodbye, but here, it’s a realization coming full circle.
What isn’t new on Safe Passage is the tendency of Abney’s songs 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.
“I know you can’t tell, but I’ve been doing well,” Abney sings as Safe Passage comes to an end. “Maybe happy.”
John Calvin Abney On Tour
AUGUST 16 - WV Giveaway & Outdoor Expo - Grafton, WV*
AUGUST 17 - North Shore House Concerts - Norfolk, VA*
AUGUST 18 - Tellus 360 - Lancaster, PA*
AUGUST 30 - Opolis - Norman, OK^
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*
SEPTEMBER 26 - Illinois River Jam - Tahlequah, OK
SEPTEMBER 30 - Creative Alliance - Baltimore, MD*
OCTOBER 01 - The Birchmere - Alexandria, VA*
OCTOBER 02 - Beacon Theatre - New York, NY*
OCTOBER 04 - Crossroads - Garwood, NJ*
OCTOBER 18 - Mercury Lounge - Tulsa, OK
OCTOBER 19 - The Speakeasy - Oklahoma City, OK
*guitar for John Moreland
^drums for Poolboy
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