Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)’

Sturgill Simpson has always hinted at and talked about doing a bluegrass album throughout the years. Thanks to his dedicated, loyal fans who donated an overwhelming amount of money through his Dick Daddy Survival School charity endeavor he started on a whim on Instagram, Simpson lives his dream with Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions).

Now I expected this album to be good. Simpson’s love and appreciation for bluegrass has always shined through and if you want a true glimpse into this I highly urge you to read the letter he emailed to fans expressing his gratitude (along with an update on where he’s at now as a person and an artist). But man I did not expect this album to be this good. I don’t think many people expected this much out of an album that is mostly bluegrass renditions of his previous songs along with finally recording some gems from his Sunday Valley days.

But maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised because the list of people involved with this project are absolutely incredible and need to be recognized. David Ferguson produces the album, who’s been involved with numerous projects with Simpson. Mark Howard is on rhythm and lead guitar, Scott Vestal is on the banjo, Mike Bub is on bass, Tim O’Brien provides background vocals and is on rhythm and lead guitar, Simpson’s longtime drummer Miles Miller provides background vocals and is on percussion, and the iconic Stuart Duncan is on fiddle. Finally the player I feel who is most important on this album and that’s Sierra Hull on mandolin and who also provides background vocals.

Hull is the secret sauce behind why this album is so damn good. As always she shines brightly on mandolin, but her background vocals are just as integral to this album’s quality and there’s no song that’s more apparent on than “Breaker’s Roar.” The original version of this song on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was already hauntingly dark and beautiful. But this new bluegrass version is actually even better than the original, which blows my mind. Hull’s background vocals are a big reason why, as it gives the song a heavenly soft sound that feels equal parts soothing and trippy. It makes for such an addictive listen and it’s arguably the best moment on the album.

But there are a lot of moments that shine on Cuttin’ Grass. “All Around You” may not be the best opening song choice, as Simpson simply organized the track list in alphabetical order. It’s the complete opposite of his usual approach, as he’s said in the past he’s particular about the track list on his album and usually urges fans to listen to the album front to back to grasp their true spirit and meaning. But with this being such a casual and unexpected side project, I don’t think track list should be such a concern for listeners. This could easily be shuffled and enjoyed. As Simpson said this is his version of a mixtape and as someone who has listened to a lot of mixtapes from the world of hip hop, this fits the nature of them.

Back to “All Around You,” maybe it’s because it’s one of my favorite songs from Simpson, but it works for me as an opener. It works because it’s one of the best performances on the record and it feels like all the aforementioned players above get to shine in moments throughout the song. Duncan’s fiddle play and Hull’s mandolin player in particular gives the song that dynamic and uplifting feel that the original version of the song does so well.

“All The Pretty Colors” is the first of four Sunday Valley songs Simpson records on the album and each one are a welcome sight to those of us who have wanted them after years of shoddy recordings on YouTube. This one is about getting your heart broken and watching the colors fade away from your world. The hook of this song is so clever and catchy with the Van Gogh reference and the play on words with “And all the pretty blue is fading/From the sea of tears I’m wading.” The contemplative “I Wonder” is another heartbreak song about wondering where you ex is and what they’re doing now. The strings on this song give it an appropriately dark and brooding feel.

“Sometimes Wine” is about acting like you’re not broken up when an ex walks out the door, but then later coping with drinking and lamenting the loss. Despite the somber nature of the lyrics, Vestal’s banjo is pretty hot and gives the song a strong melody. Out of the four Sunday Valley songs though, it’s “I Don’t Mind” that is the undisputed best (consensus seems to agree too, as it was the highest selling and streaming song of the entire album when it released). What starts out as a beautiful proclamation of love and finding God quickly turns to a lonely man’s desperate plea for the love of his life to take him back. It’s one of Simpson’s best songs he’s ever written, as the aching pain and yearning for someone that was once so close and now so far is so poignantly described to exhibit the duality of love’s light and darkness. The only complaint I have is why did it have to take so long to get a proper version? No wonder his wife told him to not come home until he recorded this song for the album.

The bending sounds of the fiddle that greets you on “Just Let Go” are so satisfying and once again sets the tone perfectly for a song on this album. “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” unsurprisingly works really well as a bluegrass song, as do all the songs from High Top Mountain on this album. I especially enjoy the harmonizing of Simpson, Hull, Miller and O’Brien on this track. The same can be said of “A Little Light,” which has always felt like a bluegrass song, even though it was on the psychedelic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

Simpson really blazes through a lot of the songs on this record at a blistering pace, which works for the most part. But it’s nice when he slows it down on songs like “Life of Sin,” “Old King Coal,” “Time After All” and “Voices.” It allows for the album to breathe a bit and let the melody simmer. But when he does let it rip on songs like “Long White Line,” “Sitting Here Without You,” “The Storm” and “Railroad of Sin,” it’s a lot of fun. Those last two songs in particular stand out, as the fury of both Simpson’s vocals and the guitars show how brawny bluegrass can sound. It’s the definition of when bluegrass “rocks out” and how a banjo can be just as powerful of an instrument as an electric guitar on full blare. This version of “Railroad of Sin” has a strong argument being even better than the original.

Two of Metamodern’s three most iconic songs, “Living the Dream” and “Turtles All the Way Down” were songs I was really curious to hear interpreted in bluegrass, as I would like to imagine these were two of the harder adaptions. While both of these are enjoyable renditions in bluegrass form, they definitely don’t touch the originals. The dripping steel guitar on “Living the Dream” and the tripping on balls nature of “Turtles All the Way Down” are integral to what make these songs so great. Not to mention the slower pace of the originals allows the lyrics to deliver better impact, while the more frenetic pace of their bluegrass covers lack gravitas.

“Water in a Well” closes the album and I love it as a closer because it features some of Simpson’s most impactful songwriting. This album also has a great focus on the earlier part of Simpson’s career and this song is one of his best from his early days. It’s another instance where Simpson does a great job of capturing the feelings of heartbreak, as it’s a complicated mixture of sadness, regret and getting over it. Hull once again shines too, as the mandolin gives the song a weeping nature that perfectly suits the lyrics and her background vocals once again add that needed extra emotional layer.

In Simpson’s letter he says he could do about 17 more of these mixtapes and that sounds great to me. On the next one I hope he tackles some bluegrass interpretations of SOUND & FURY, as it could make for an interesting challenge for him and the listener. People seemed to really overlook the quality songwriting of that album and I think bluegrass versions could make them re-evaluate it. His covers of The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening To The Rain” and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” would make fine additions too. But I’m not sure how difficult this may be to cover these songs nor his SOUND & FURY songs due to legal/licensing reasons. In the infamous Uproxx interview, he mentions licensing masters for a term before getting them back, so he may not have the rights to SOUND & FURY songs returned to him yet.

Sturgill Simpson is clearly in his element on Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1. He takes to bluegrass like a duck takes to water. Who knows what direction he will go on his fifth and supposedly final studio album and who knows when he’ll release Volume 2 of Cuttin’ Grass. In a tumultuous year, the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy this wonderful surprise from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Conway the Machine’s ‘From King To A GOD’

While it feels like most of hip hop is going pop, the Griselda group is perfectly content doing what they do best and that’s delivering some of the grimiest beats and hardest hitting bars in the game. While all three of Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine all bring something great to the table, it feels like Conway in particular has had a rapidly rising 2020. All of his features have been standouts and he delivered a really solid project in LULU with The Alchemist (I haven’t even got a chance to listen to No One Mourns the Wicked yet). So now he’s released what he’s dubbing his debut album in From King to a GOD and it’s without a doubt a fantastic debut from an artist who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best lyricists in hip hop.

The voice of zen writer and speaker Alan Watts greets you on opener “From King,” which is definitely a nice surprise. Conway then does his thing and that’s drop hard hitting bars that set the tone for the album well. And the song ends with a sample of a Kevin Nash promo/Tony Schiavone commentary in WCW because it’s a Griselda album of course. It’s a great opener because I’ll remember it and it makes me want to hear more. Next is “Fear of God,” where Conway has a great, smooth flow and the DeJ Loaf feature fits the song’s attitude, capping off the song with a nice touch.

I really enjoy the griminess of “Lemon,” although the hook is a bit weak. But the bars hit hard, Conway’s delivery is emphatically great and Method Man absolutely kills his verse. His weathered, deep voice matches perfectly with the dark beats. Any other album and this should be easily the best feature, but this album is loaded with amazing guest features. “Dough & Damani” is produced by The Alchemist and of course it’s smooth as hell. Conway and The Alchemist have such great chemistry. Conway also features his more humorous side on this song, which is enjoyable. I particularly enjoy the short kit around two guys arguing over who gets to hold the gun.

“Juvenile Hell” is not only my favorite song on the album, but maybe my favorite song I’ve ever heard from Conway. First the beat on this is absolutely filthy and does 90s boom bap absolutely proud. Then you have the features from Flee Lord, Havoc and Lloyd Banks. Each one of them bring absolute fire, but Banks steals the show with his appearance. His flow over the beat is absolutely flawless and the wordplay is brilliant. The line I really enjoy is “I’m on my rivals, embarrass ‘em with my calm bravado/My alma mater of smackin’ a n**** horizontal.”

Next is the first “Words of Shay” interlude and it’s cool to hear these words from Conway’s close friend DJ Shay, who is unfortunately revealed to be dead later in the album on Conway’s tribute to him on “Forever Droppin Tears.” And I should point out that the title is not just an expression of Conway’s sadness over the passing of his friend, but also a reference to Shay talking about in the interludes how Conway cries when recording songs. So it doubles as Conway’s showing of passion. The song itself is an absolutely beautiful tribute with lots of heartfelt lyrics and great storytelling of the relationship between Shay and Conway. It’s all set over a bouncy and classy beat from Hit-Boy and El Camino adds a lot with his feature. But I will say I don’t think the third interlude was really necessary, as I think the tribute was good as is with just two interludes. Still it doesn’t take away much from one of the highlights of this album.

“Front Lines” is Conway’s take on the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter movement that took place this past summer and the systemic racism that has been taking place for years. Conway does a fantastic job laying out all the issues and once again his storytelling lyricism really shines, particularly when he’s describing how routine police stops quickly turn to violence for many black Americans. The song ends with a clip of a news report of when protesters broke into the Minnesota police precinct this past summer and this definitely fits the song, but I feel it goes a bit too long and smaller clip would have been more effective.

“Anza” is the weakest song of the album, as it’s pop-ish flavor is such a stark contrast to the rest of the record’s sound and sticks out like a sore thumb. It just doesn’t fit and while Armani Caesar is a great MC, her feature is a bit boring. All around this song just doesn’t work within this album. “Seen Everything But Jesus” gets back on the right track though and grows on me more and more with each listen. Conway is joined by Freddie Gibbs and as always Gibbs delivers. A nice surprise we get from Gibbs though is some singing in addition to his always hard-hitting bars. While he seemed to always be joking when doing this earlier in his career, his singing is actually pretty good and I wouldn’t mind hearing him take on some R&B songs. Even his more humorous singing moments are fun (see “FLFM” off Freddie).

“Spurs 3” is the traditional Griselda joint on all Griselda albums and like a Gibbs feature, you can always count on this to be great. The dark and eccentric beat is lively and engaging, with each of Conway, Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher flowing well over it. Although I am a bit surprised that Benny is weakest sounding on this track, as usually he’s the best technical rapper of the trio (Gunn is more about flash and Conway is the sharp lyricist). Nonetheless it’s a solid track.

“Jesus Khrysis” has a spacey, throwback beat that draws on boom bap again, something this album really does a great job with and it’s one of my favorite beats of the album. What makes it even better is the lyricism is top notch, with Conway delivering excellent verses like “N***** try blockin’ my goals, I’ma make it Messi” and “That’s the zone I’m in, I write with a golden pen/But lately, I ain’t even been writin’, I just been goin’ in.” Not only is the later a great bar, but also a possible glimpse into Conway’s approach to writing because apparently him and Benny both go into the studio and record without any lyrics written down. They do it all from the top of their head, which if true, makes the songwriting even more impressive.

“Nothin’ Less” is another banger that closes the album out strong. It has a surprise feature from DJ Premier, who fits yet another amazing boom bap inspired song. And some people may find the reliance on boom bap influences on this album to be lazy, but I completely disagree when so much of hip hop nowadays is filled with generic, pop radio chasing beats and trying so hard to sound like a Drake song. So I find throwback beats like this be quite refreshing because it pays homage to the roots of the genre and the producers on this album also bring a modern flavor to it, avoiding sounding dated too. And of course it helps to have a great lyricist like Conway to rap over it, as a lot of rappers would get eaten up by the sound.

From King to a GOD is a fantastic proper debut album from Conway The Machine, as he brings his signature sound and high quality lyricism that longtime fans have come to appreciate him for while also bringing a level of accessibility in the music that will surely attract new fans too.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Texas Exit’s ‘Black Water’

So there are several methods I deploy to discover new music. One of my more odd methods is I sometimes just go through upcoming releases by genre on iTunes and listen to previews of albums based on if I find the cover art to be interesting. It’s weird I know and 9 times out of 10 the album ends up being something where I listen to a few songs, discard it and never mention it on this blog. But then every once in a while I find something worth posting about and this is how I found Texas Exit and their debut album Black Water.

There isn’t a lot about this band mentioned outside of their Facebook page. From what I can find, Texas Exit is a trio based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada made up of Ryan Irving (lead guitar, vocals), William McLeod (bass) and Jon Pord (drums). They’re self-described as a country/rock powerhouse band with influences rooted in 90s country and 80s rock, citing Van Halen, Brooks & Dunn and Pantera as influences. After listening to Black Water, this couldn’t be a more accurate description and I’m so glad they live up to this billing because I’m a sucker for both of these styles of music (especially fused together).

Right away you get blasted with some crunchy, ZZ Top-like guitars with “My Own Bartender.” It’s a rollicking, in your face drinking song that you want to play to kick off a wild Friday night. “Hurricane” is about finding love against all odds. It’s a simple love song with a relatable story and reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival with it’s easy going melody. “When She Drinks” is straight 80s with it’s questionable opening line, but then it takes a funny left turn to describe a straight-laced working woman who enjoys staying in most nights and reading books. But when she does party and drink, she out drinks everybody. It’s not that original of a theme and the hair metal-like approach will rub a lot the wrong way, but I can also see the anthemic appeal of it too.

“Roll in the Sand” is what it sounds like: it’s about a drunken one-night stand. While it may be a bit more detailed for some listeners than they would like, the framing of the song from the point of wistful nostalgia and fondness I feel casts it in a better light than the majority of songs like this. Not to mention both sides know what they were in for and nobody appears to be used. It’s a just a story about a memory on a fun summer night. This is the type of simple storytelling that a lot of classic rock songs really excelled at (think songs like “Summer of ’69”).

Nostalgia is the center of “Home Again” too. This time it’s about revisiting home recalling the days of youth, specifically through the lens of the 90s. The guitar riff on this are so damn catchy and the singalong nature is just so much fun. And yeah as someone who grew up in the 90s, the lyrics are relatable (also this makes me feel old). Texas Exit doesn’t just excel at fun, guitar music though as they prove on “Empty Room.” It’s a dark, haunting and somber song about a father who lives in guilt over his missing daughter and is forced to live in heartbreak as he continues to search for her every day. The lingering steel guitar really adds to the sad nature of the song and gives it real levity behind some pretty dark lyrics.

Texas Exit stays in a dark place on the album’s title track, as it’s about an old dirt road that people go down to have fun and usually never return alive (but I thought it was all good times on a dirt road according to bro country). The thumping guitar is an instant toe tapper and head banger, matching the gritty lyrics well. Irving’s passionate delivery is great too. “My Something” is about a man who wants a woman, but she rejects him. Later she changes her mind and wants him back, only for him to turn the tables on her and reject her. It’s a great revenge song that conveys a well-deserved dishing of what goes around comes around while also avoiding being vindictive and petty like these types of songs often devolve into.

The reflective “Docks of P.E.I.” recalls a teenage romance that lingers in the mind of the man to this day, as he looks back with fondness upon the woman and the memories they made together. While the band goes to the nostalgia well a bit too much on this album, this song is arguably their best take on it, as the lyrics are well thought-out, heartfelt and the energetic piano play is really captivating. The band then goes out with a real bang on “Turns to Love.” Another song with fun guitar licks, but yet another song with great lyricism too. It’s about wanting to find love, even a bit desperate to find it and stuck in a bit of loneliness, yet in the end it focuses on the determination of the goal and finding someone who appreciates you for you. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy. But that’s 80s rock and part of what makes it so enjoyable.

Texas Exit delivers an absolute blast of a debut album in Black Water. While they definitely let their cited influences above shine through, personally the two bands I thought of when listening to this album are Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot, as the sound feels like it fits right in with those bands. While it’s understandable how a band wearing it’s influences on it’s sleeves can be a bit annoying, I find that Texas Exit does this in a way that feels like a good combination of homage and putting their own flair on it. While it’s easy to get lost in the fun guitar play, it’s the lyrics of this album that are it’s secret weapon and what makes this band stand out amongst other groups who attempt these popular sounds.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Brothers Osborne’s ‘Skeletons’

Now this is what I’m talking about! Those who have been following me as a music reviewer for a few years know that I’ve been more critical of the Brothers Osborne than many and that’s because I feel they haven’t lived up to their potential. Their debut album Pawn Shop was decent, but they definitely hit a sophomore slump with Port Saint Joe, a largely forgettable beach album. But with Skeletons they hit their sweet spot, a thumping and fun album that’s a good time from start to finish.

“Lighten Up” is a light and playful ode to finding silver linings in the chaotic world we live in and “All Night” is an absolute ear-worm with it’s catchy hooks. “All The Good Ones Are” has enjoyably slick guitar work with a cheeky theme of finding the most fun in the most dangerous situations. “I’m Not For Everyone” screams hit to me with it’s easygoing, sing-a-long nature and relatable premise. The album’s title track is fun, although it wears a bit quicker than the other fun tracks on the album, as it has one of the weaker hooks. Jay Joyce really excels with the production on this album, as it feels like he’s found the right sound for this duo and that excites me moving forward on future projects.

While this album has plenty of fun songs, it tackles other themes quite well too. “Back On The Bottle” is your classic country drinking song of finding joy in heartbreak through the bottle. And while it’s become a bit tiresome to have celebratory drinking songs in modern country, this song has enough charisma to win me over. “High Note” is a pleasant song about leaving a relationship on good terms and going out on a high note with one last hurrah. The soaring and smooth nature of this song is a nice breather too on an album full of “twangers” (country’s version of bangers).

The duo really surprise me when they drop an exciting instrumental in “Muskrat Greene.” It reminds me of when Brad Paisley would regularly sneak an instrumental onto the album and I wish more artists would do this. This instrumental segues nicely into “Deadman’s Curve,” a funny, yet serious song about trying to avoid falling in love with a woman who’s guaranteed to break your heart. “Make It A Good One” is admittedly a bit saccharine, but I can’t help but enjoy it’s sentiment. Not to mention I enjoy the lingering background synth in the chorus, as it really adds some emotion to the lyrics.

“Hatin’ Somebody” is a bit on the nose, but once again Brothers Osborne bring enough charisma to the table in both their vocal delivery and funky instrumentation that the message mostly sticks the landing. It would have been nice though to here some more depth behind this message beyond be nice and mindful of others. Closing song “Old Man’s Boots” is the only song on the album I skip most of the time, as it’s a mawkish, done-to-death theme that the duo fails to elevate and captivate my attention with.

Skeletons is easily the best album delivered by the Brothers Osborne so far. This duo at their best in my mind is the modern day version of Brooks & Dunn. What both of these duos excel at is delivering accessible, yet “smarter” versions of fun country music that doesn’t delve into mindless drivel like bro country nor does it feel forced like pop country. Then sprinkle in a few serious songs to give you a nice breather in between all of the partying and this is the perfect formula for the duo to follow. This is a really enjoyable album and definitely one of the top ten country albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

You know a blog with country in the name reviewing a folk-influenced Taylor Swift album doesn’t seem so farfetched. But this is surprisingly the first time I’ve ever reviewed a Taylor Swift album. It’s not that I haven’t listened to Swift’s music. If you’re a millennial you hear her music whether you want to or not. The timing simply hasn’t worked out for me to review it, as this was an only country blog when she went pop and her last two albums were quite frankly forgettable and not worth talking about. But her surprise new album folklore is certainly an album I have a lot to say about.

The first thing of course that stands out about this album is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part.

That leads me to the obvious comparison for this album, which is Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. While folklore may lack the subtlety of NFR and feels like a poor imitator of it to some listeners, I would argue folklore does a much better job in terms of memorable melody and catchy lyrics. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Swift has an established history of this while Del Rey is more of a niche sound and audience. The TL;DR for this album is Swift is taking a bunch of elements of several albums and popular styles in the indie world in recent years and putting on pop polish with her own style. This comes off as either too simplistic or an enjoyable compromise. For me it’s the latter.

“the 1” is a great opener to the album, as the song sets the overarching theme and that’s regrets, what-ifs and trying to learn from the loss of a meaningful relationship. I also enjoy how well Swift conveys both wistfulness and heartache, as it shows how caught between emotions you are when wondering what could have been. “cardigan” continues this theme, but it’s the first of a handful of songs on this album that just completely overstay their welcome and ultimately lead to a slightly longer album runtime than necessary.

“the last great american dynasty” took several listens to grow on me, as I kind of struggled to find the point this song is trying to make and what I come up with is it’s a critical commentary on wealth, privilege and sex. The middle class wife is solely blamed for the downfall of a wealthy family, even though there’s nothing to judge by this other than the snide judgements casted from onlookers. The song appropriately ends from the first-person point of view of the wife, who seems to sarcastically agree with the speculation. It’s great storytelling from Swift.

Bon Iver joins Swift on “exile” and while I normally don’t enjoy his voice, I think Bon Iver and Swift sound pretty good together. This song about casting away exes surprisingly works well as a duet and I enjoy the climactic build in the second half of the song as the duo harmonizes. “my tears ricochet” is about questioning how an ex can be so dishonest about the nature of the relationship and feeling like your emotions about the relationship don’t mean anything to them. The mental image of tears ricocheting off the ex is such an excellent metaphor, perfectly showcasing their heartlessness and disregard on the outside. But internally the ex is not okay and their former partner rightly sees their outward righteousness as hollow and insincere. Or at least they like to think this. This song is such a fantastic display of the complexity of emotions when in the immediate fallout of a relationship.

“mirrorball” is about being a mirror for your partner and while this is an intriguing concept supported by great lyrics, the production is the highlight of this song. The sweeping and relax, Enya-like sound is gorgeous and easy to get wrapped up in. “seven” is a brooding and meditative story of hanging onto love. The modern meets classical, string-driven sound gives the song an appropriately nostalgic feel. “august” is about realizing your relationship was never what you thought it was when you were in it. It was just a fun summer memory that leaves one side of the relationship feeling a mix of regret and fondness. I really enjoy the soaring nature of Swift’s voice and the production throughout and then concluding in a symphonic-like finale, much like the relationship described in the song.

“this is me trying” features some of the sharpest one liners I’ve heard from Swift. The obvious one of course is “So I got wasted like all my potential,” which is a sharp rebuke to the criticisms being lobbed at the protagonist. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting” is another clever conveyance of the disappointment of the protagonist, who after what sounds like a long time of regret is at the front door of their ex and trying to fix what was done. The droning organ that lingers throughout gives the song a hypnotically melancholy sound and gives it such swelling emotion.

There are three songs on this album that I can hands down say are now amongst my favorite Swift songs and the first is “illicit affairs.” Again, Swift does so well at describing the fallout of a breakup. The beginning of the song is level-headed introspection about how the relationship failed and learning from it. It also features the superb use of “clandestine” and yes I’m a music nerd because I love when a song takes a rarely used word in songs and uses it perfectly (see also Eric Church with incandescent). The second half of the song is an enjoyable burst of righteous indignation and anger that comes in admitting that an ex has changed you as painful as it is to admit. The depth and maturity on display in this song is so good and it’s easily one of my most played songs on this record.

Remember how I said “cardigan” is one of a handful of songs that would have been better with a shorter runtime? Well “invisible string” and “mad woman” are amongst these songs. The concepts for these songs are good and they very much fit the theme of the album, but they’re not really necessary and the album would benefit more for their absence than their presence, as this album’s biggest flaw is it’s too long. If this album was a bit tighter, this album is maybe a challenger for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year. “epiphany” is a beautiful sounding song that’s contrasted by war imagery as the story is of a soldier who seeks a reassuring dream as they bleed to death on a hospital bed. It’s dark, haunting and tragic, capturing all the emotions of a solider of war. It’s one of Swift’s finest songs she’s ever written.

And of course “betty” is the third song that’s now amongst my favorites from Swift. I was hooked from the moment I heard the sweet sounds of the harmonica. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old boy, he recounts over a summer how he hurt a girl he loved and lives with regret for months as he tries to figure out how to apologize. It’s a song about finding growth and learning how it’s okay to admit when you make a mistake. As everyone knows, Swift became a household name on songs about high school romance. Most of those songs made me gag for their immaturity, mawkishness and being completely out of touch with reality. But this song is the opposite of all these criticisms. And damn it’s so catchy too. Can Swift come back to country music?

“peace” is another production standout on this album. The combination of the Mellotron, bass and synthesizers is so smooth and infectious. It’s such an overall minimalist approach, yet it’s one of the most powerful sounding tracks on the album. Antonoff and Dessner hit a real home run and I think it would have been great to conclude the album here. It’s not that closing track “hoax” is bad though, as it’s actually quite good. It’s a somber piano ballad where all the sadness of a relationship being over is swallowed with crushing pain and aches. It’s the reaching of a total state of being broke with the only thing to show for now being the road ahead and a body and mind covered in scars.

Grade: 8/10