I’ve enjoyed a lot of Ward Davis’ songwriting the last few years, from his songs for Willie Nelson to Cody Jinks. But admittedly his debut album 15 Years in a 10 Year Town bored me. The straight-ahead traditional country sound paired with his voice just didn’t work for me, as it sounded like your run-of-the-mill “outlaw” country album. But on his new album Black Cats and Crows he thankfully ditches this and embraces a southern rock sound, which fits him like a glove. Bringing on Jim “Moose” Brown, a member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, as the producer was a wise choice, as he brings the sound Davis needed to make his voice standout.
This album mainly centers around heartbreak, dealing with demons and drinking to cope with it all. It’s pretty dark and heavy in a lot of parts, as Davis intimately details the path of sorrow and regret that’s paved throughout the album. Right away I will say this album suffers from bloat, as it doesn’t need to be 50 minutes long to drive the theme of it across. It would have greatly benefited from trimming about 10 minutes, as the themes explored in this album get to be tiresome after a certain runtime for me. But for the most part this album offers a lot of good.
“Ain’t Gonna be Today” is a great opener, as it’s a nice thesis of the album: heartbreak is in the air and it isn’t going anywhere today or for the foreseeable future. Davis laments it will pass one day, but he knows he’s still got some healing to do before it happens. I appreciate that there’s just enough hope of light shown and it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel bullshitted. It feels realistic and acknowledges that your stuck down deep in sadness. The title track continues on this theme and shows just how far Davis feels gone in the light of losing the love of his life, as he feels like darkness lurks around every corner.
“Threads” begins an excellent four-track run. What I love about this song is how it slowly builds up through the song to reveal what’s ultimately got the narrator down to threads, which is an empty spot next to him in the bed. The piano-driven sound suits Davis perfectly and compliments his rough, baritone voice well. The piano gives that bit of softness needed to give gravitas to Davis’ weary voice and lyrics. The same can be said for piano love ballads “Heaven Had a Hand” and “Lady Down on Love.” While these two songs could come off as schmaltzy to some listeners, I think it shows a refreshing vulnerability to Davis and a balance to this rowdier side in other songs. I would like to see Davis lean more into this on his next album.
I love a well-written murder ballad and “Sounds of Chains” checks off everything I want in this type of song: a sense of drama, mystery, an intimate detailing of what happened and the running emotions of the murderer. Even better you get a compelling psyche of the murderer: someone who thinks he was justified in killing his wife and the man she was cheating with and thinks finding God in his jail cell would save him. But the song ends with him waking up burning in hell after being sentenced to death and seeing both of them staring back at him. The visuals created by the songwriting here are excellent and the music video David could create for this could be amazing.
Unfortunately Davis’ other murder ballad “Papa and Mama” is exactly the kind of murder ballads I don’t enjoy. This one doesn’t work because it’s so predictable and you know what’s going to happen from the very beginning. The theme of the abusive father being killed by their child has been done so many times and this offers no compelling alternate take. Not to mention the straight-ahead bluesy country sound is not interesting either, so the production is also boring. I would have left this one on the cutting room floor. I can say the same of “Where I Learned to Live” and “Good to Say Goodbye,” as these songs are telegraphed from a mile away of where they’re going and you know what the lyrics are going to be about before you even hear them.
“Get to Work Whiskey” is a song upon glance at the title makes one think it’s another generic drinking song. And it is a drinking song, but it’s actually quite compelling because Davis takes the different approach of treating the whiskey like someone he just hired for a job. It’s an amusing premise and the lyrics are enjoyably catchy. Davis’ take on “Colorado” is dare I say better than Cody Jinks’ version. It’s not that I don’t like Jinks’ version, as I very much enjoyed it too. But I what I like about this version better is it’s more stripped down sound and Davis’ voice having more of an aching loneliness behind it.
Davis’ attention to detail works really well again in “Book of Matches,” as he’s now left to deal with the remains of a relationship gone. His coping mechanisms of a book of matches and a bottle of wine help paint a nice picture of a heartbroken man trying to find some way to get over it all. This same amount of detail would have been nice to have in “Nobody.” While the glimpse into the mind of a man who sees himself as a nobody is an interesting part of the album, I would have liked to hear this song go somewhere with the theme. It feels a bit listless and the hook feels a little repetitive by the time you reach the end of the song.
“Good and Drunk” is an appropriate closer on the album, as a man somberly reflects on signing his divorce papers and finding hope in numbing himself with the bottle. The latter is an understandable paradox to the former, yet is also a continuation of what likely made the former happen. It’s a seemingly endless cycle that he continues to live, which sums up the whole album: trying to fix a situation with something that likely was also what caused him to be in the situation of a sad, broken man with little hope beyond what lies at the bottom of a bottle.
The ability to demonstrate the complex layers of emotion behind a man hopelessly clinging to a bottle and tormented by heartbreak is what makes this album shine and shows the strength of Ward Davis’ songwriting. Like I said his songwriting has always been good, but on Black Cats and Crows he most importantly touches on the type of storytelling needed to deliver a really good album. And of course the southern rock sound that he dives into provides the sonic palette he needed to elevate his lyrics too. Overall this is a great step in the right direction for Ward Davis, as he delivers a dark southern rock album brimming with great storytelling.