GROWING OLDER, WISER, BETTER Slaid Cleaves. | KAREN CLEAVES
Hopefully you picked up at least one show of Slaid Cleaves’s run through the Northeast as he headed upta camp here in his home state. Prescott Park with Joy Kills Sorrow and Jonathan Edwards. One Longfellow. Damariscotta.
If not, it might be a good idea to pick up his brand-new Still Fighting the War, just to give yourself an idea of what you’ve missed. With as good a claim as anyone else to the title of Best Songwriter Ever To Come Out Of Maine, Cleaves has produced with his fourth full-length yet another group of songs alternately powerful and smart — and often both.
His choruses progress. His narratives arc and captivate. He draws you in just enough to surprise you. And the production is terrific, like he’s always just right across the room, and the rest of the instruments are on all sides of you, immediate and layered for support. He’s been compared to Guy Clark and John Prine, and that’s spot-on, with the resignation of the former and the ability to cut right to the quick of the latter.
Like those songwriting giants, Cleaves is able to be direct and heartfelt, without irony, and never come close to cloying or corny. His is the voice of your conscience, focusing so well on those little details that matter and never engaging in hyperbole or easy generalizations.
It’s what makes the title track, his story of a lost veteran, ring so true, sympathizing in the second person: “Can’t get your feet on the ground/Got some issues and no one wants you around/Barely sleeping and you can’t get the VA on the phone.” With a touch of shaker behind an aggressive electric guitar, the tune manages to combine edgy and warm.
Similarly, when he pens a love song, there’s nothing sappy about it. “Gone,” with a sinister fingerstyle guitar and a dark shuffle in the snare, is one of the best stories of love’s twists and turns you’re likely to hear. Cleaves takes us from pre-teen crush to college sweetheart to a daughter’s leaving to the painful abandonment of senility in old age, all in 3:11.
This, ultimately, is his true skill: an ability to tell a story from start to finish in a song that remains crisp and never gets close to ponderous. If he had written “American Pie,” it’d actually be radio-friendly.
He gets some help with that on this album from old friend and fellow Mainer Rod Picott, who lends a hand on both “Rust Belt Fields,” full of deep backing vocals and exported jobs, and “Welding Burns,” which is rooted in Cleaves’s father’s job down at the Portsmouth Naval Yard.
Both extol the often unrecognized virtues of hard work. Which is Cleaves from the start — hard work, attention to detail, no unnecessary flash.
That doesn’t mean he’s a killjoy, though. “Texas Love Song,” a duet with Austin pal Terri Hendrix, is adroitly fun, full of smart wordplay and great efforts at rhyming with “Texas”: “Your smile hits me right in the solar plexus.” And his ode to Texas legend Yodelin’ Donnie Walser, who died in 2006, makes sure to include a yodel break of his own, as both homage and to show he can hang. The fiddle and the pedal steel here are nice, too.