Ben de la Cour to Release Latest Album SHADOW LAND
There are singer-songwriters, and there are troubadours. Singer-songwriters are sensitive, polished souls, sharing their journal entries with the world, whereas troubadours do their best just to stay out of jail. And in the wake of Ben de la Cour's astonishing new record, Shadow Land, you can add his name to the top of the list of younger troubadours to whom this ever-so-occasionally poisoned chalice is being passed.
Shadow Land shimmers - it's both terrifying, soothing and suffused with honesty, craft, a rare soul-baring fearlessness and enough surprises to keep the listener guessing. It gets down and dirty with electric guitar but also features Ben's diffident fingerpicking in quieter moments. Ultimately, it is a darkly beautiful meditation on what it means to be human. Ben's voice renders emotion with authority as he recounts tales of suspicious characters; lost lovers, bank robbers, suicides, mental illness, ghoul-haunted pool halls and murders in front of ghoul-haunted pool halls. To quote a verse from the brilliant "From Now On", he sings "it's hard to hold a candle / in a wind so wild and strong." That one line sums up the troubadour's life about as well as anything ever said about it before.
To say Ben de la Cour has lived an eventful life in the course of keeping that flame lit would be putting it mildly. As a young man, Ben was a successful amateur boxer in his weight class, even moving to Cuba to train. After playing New York City dives like CBGBs with his brother a decade before he could legally drink, he had already stuffed himself into a bottle of bourbon and pulled the cork in tight over his head by the time he was twenty one. He was a handful to say the least. There were arrests, homes in tough neighborhoods all over the world, countless false starts and battles with mental health and substance abuse. But seven years ago Ben finally found himself in East Nashville, and after a successful stint in a dual-diagnosis facility he's racked up two years sober and made far and away the best of his four albums - Shadow Land.
Shadow Land comes in steaming with "God's Only Son", a gut-bucket western that sounds like Sergio Leone being fed through a meat grinder about a bank-robbing drifter who may or may not believe he is the messiah. "High Heels Down the Holler" is straight-up rough blues with a ragged and grimy acoustic slide that weaves its way through a threatening fiddle line like Tony Joe White with a whiff of Tom Waits. "In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash)", Ben's scathing put-down of corporate crooks "putting candles on dog s and calling it cake" seethes alongside a band channeling "Stop Breaking Down." On the other side of the fence are the delicate, atmospheric "Amazing Grace (Slight Return)" and "The Last Chance Farm" about his first day in rehab, and how "life used to be so silly, it don't feel that way no more".
Ben turns on a dime on "Basin Lounge", all pure jittery New York Dolls vibe highlighted by a boogie-woogie piano that would make Jerry Lee proud and a snarling guitar that brings to mind Joe Strummer's The 101ers. One of the album's crowning moments arrives with "Swan Dive", a gorgeous feat of narrative storytelling. A gentle waltz, it tells the shattering tale of lost love and suicide, questioning how close to the edge we really are. When he sings, "My heart does a swan dive, right out of my chest, into a river of sorrow," the desolation is palpable. The final track on the album, "Valley of the Moon", is a terrifying meditation on what Jack London referred to as the 'white logic' of alcohol-induced psychosis while simultaneously contemplating Chuang Tzu's meditation on material transformation in a voice as cold and dead as the man in the moon himself.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a Nashville record, but you would be wrong. Ben de la Cour, the drunk and unhinged miscreant, wrote a grant proposal in hopes of receiving funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. "I locked myself away and wrote this fifty-page grant proposal without really sleeping. And then I went straight to rehab" he laughs. And it worked! Ben de la Cour caught a break - Manitoba Film and Music ponied up to cover the recording costs. So Shadow Land, which drips with East Nashville vibe, was actually recorded in Winnipeg with producer Scott Nolan. "Scott wrote Hayes Carll's "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" which is basically a modern standard, and produced records by William Prince, Richard Inman, Adam Carroll and a bunch of other great artists. We bonded over Nick Cave and the fact that we're both recovering metalheads."
"I figured everyone comes to Nashville to make records" Ben continues, "for better or worse I don't get that excited about doing what everyone else seems to be doing. So I went up to Canada in the middle of the polar vortex to make a record with a bunch of people I'd never met in my life. I flew my brother Alex in to play drums - we haven't made a record together since our hesher days and we recorded almost the whole thing live, vocals included. I wanted to have fun. In an evil way."