John Moreland has spent most of his life writing songs and making music. He was in a punk band for a bit, but shifted his personal musical direction once he realized he wanted to sing songs that would hit listeners right in the chest. He wants to write and sing stories that were raw, emotional, and real. 2013’s In the Throes was Moreland’s breakout album, and he follows that heartbreaking collection of songs with High on Tulsa Heat. High on Tulsa Heat is equally as eloquent and poignant as its predecessor. Moreland wrote ten deep, heartbreaking songs about life’s toughest moments. These songs aren’t light, and the mostly stripped back production aids the songs in way that’s like John Moreland inviting his listeners into his soul.
The album begins with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” The song appears to deal with dissatisfaction. Searching endlessly to find life’s calling and dealing with pain that you feel when life lets you down. Moreland describes this search with intense imagery; his word choice is excellent with some wonderful rhyme schemes. “This world will have the wolves outside your door, and make you leave all that you love to fight a war and never tell you what you’re dying for.” If you, like myself, hadn’t listened to Moreland before now, this is a prime example of the type of writing he delivers across the board. The production picks up a bit on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” The drums find a nice place behind the guitars, and it sounds like a faint steel guitar in the mix. The song deals with being weary on a journey. Love is dying, dreams aren’t panning out, and there’s doubt and pain weighing you down.
The album slows down again in “Cleveland County Blues.” Here Moreland deals with the pain of being left by his love. He compares her with a tornado, and even though he’s way up in Cleveland County, he won’t soon forget her. There’s some great acoustic country instrumentation behind Moreland’s vocals. Moreland writes of a different side of love on “White Flag.” The relationship in this story is one of endless devotion, possibly to a fault. Where she is struggling to get by with life, he is there to be her white flag. He’ll give everything he has to help her make it through. For my money, “White Flag” is the best song of the album: great writing, great vocals and a perfect production behind the lyrics.
“Sad Baptist Rain” is about being drawn toward temptation. Moreland grew up in the Baptist church, and speaks of how there were times of guilt with his actions and aspirations conflicting with the Baptist ideals. There’s a nice light rock production to this song that fits nicely. “Cherokee” is said to have been written about a lucid dream. The lyrics depict a search for a long-lost figure of wisdom, maybe a deceased father. Moreland engages the listener with vivid descriptions and details that tell a story while leaving interpretation up to the listener.
“Losing Sleep Tonight” finds Moreland dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. She has left him cold, confused and searching for answers. Moreland simply ponders if she, like him, is losing sleep tonight over the end of the relationship. The melody picks up a bit on this track with heavier drums and guitar strums behind the vocals. “American Flags in Black & White” is another great track that allows room for the listener to find their own meaning. The title alone paints a great picture in your head, and the song uses that image to pine for a time of simpler ways. Life has gotten hard, blows have been dealt, and the characters long for the days from their old black and white pictures.
John Moreland shows a different side of relationships falling apart on the next track. “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is about a relationship that’s gone cold. His old demons have gotten the best of him and allowed it to affect their life together. And while he continues to struggle, his actions have left her so burned that she can’t feel any sympathy for his pain. When Moreland describes his desire to punch people in the chest with his songs, this one is a prime example of that. The album ends with the title track. “High on Tulsa Heat” ties the album together in a sped up, but similar melody to the opening track. The theme of searching for a place to call home add to the songs paralleled similarities. Moreland grew up in Tulsa after moving from Kentucky, so it makes sense to have these two particular home-themed songs named after that city. The song works nicely to tie the album together and drive it home.
High on Tulsa Heat is about identity. It’s an album depicting some bad situations and how we can find out who we are in light of those challenges and struggles. John Moreland’s insight on this album is not something that you find in music much anymore. The lyrics all paint vivid, wonderfully imagery, and Moreland puts himself and the listener in the center of each story in a natural way. While fans get a further look into the complex mind of John Moreland, the lyrics also leave enough room for each person to gather their own meaning from the songs. That same praise will also be the dividing line between the casual music fan and those who pine for deep songs and gut punching stories. Moreland doesn’t write for the casual fan; he writes for himself and those who are willing to tag along on his journey.