“Living Proof,” from the EP Telling Stories to the Wall, features these lines near the end: “Nobody’s got the time, and everybody’s got an opinion / Well, my opinion is: Damn The Torpedoes is totally awesome, thank you, Tom Petty.” With his new album, Silver Tears, the influence of Petty on Aaron Lee Tasjan’s work is clear, as songs feature the lush instrumentation and vocal range that made Petty’s work so infectious. That said, there really is only one Aaron Lee Tasjan, and even as he branches out beyond East Nashville and its songs about trains, he maintains his unique ability to thread the needle between gravity and humor and continues to come back around to where it all begins in American music: the blues.
The album opens with three songs that demonstrate the range Tasjan is going for: first, the groovy, “Hard Life,” featuring a strong bass line; “Little Movies,” in which Tasjan goes big and totally delivers; and “Memphis Rain,” with steady rimshots and classic country feel. But even though the sound shifts pretty dramatically, the songs are connected and complement each other incredibly well. The horn section and piano that subtly amplifies and adds color to “Hard Life” gets you ready for the strings and organ that make “Little Movies” expansive; similarly, Tasjan’s vocal range during the chorus on “Movies,” signals what he’ll do on the chorus of “Memphis Rain,” climbing octaves–don’t try singing along, you’ll hurt yourself.
With these three songs setting the stage, it feels like Tasjan can go anywhere; and so he does. “Dime” features a driving, bluesy guitar riff to kick off the song, but it doesn’t just stay there, letting the piano shape the changes in the song, and using handclaps to accentuate the rhythm and a pedal steel before the last verse to add texture. Tasjan sings, “And everybody knows it, They tell me all the time / I’m worth at least a million and I barely have a dime. / That’s all right.” This song has just the right amount of pop to it–it’s catchy, it’s sing-a-long-able, but it also includes a wry sense of humor that keeps us grounded. Not letting us get too comfortable, “I’m Ready Die,” begins with a dark acoustic blues riff and haunting violin and Tasjan seems to unleash the rest of the band with his distorted vocal on the chorus. The song never strays too far from that central blues riff that just takes on more power as the song builds.
One of my favorite parts of the album are the songs “On Your Side,” and “Success,” paired together as complementary ruminations on how your view of yourself is always contested by how others see you. “I sing jokes, and call ‘em songs / Nobody knows where they belong,” Tasjan sings in “On Your Side.” That is a great description of what Tasjan does, except for the fact that he also writes really poignant, vulnerable lyrics: later in the song, the chorus resolves with these lines, “Some might live to make a better day tomorrow / Some just live til they die.” “Success,” is a really cool counterpoint to the twangy, crooning “On Your Side” with its dirty guitar licks and sharp drum beats. For some reason, I couldn’t get the comparison to The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself” out of my head during the chorus–it has a similar sort of punchy delivery that insists on its message: “Success ain’t about being better than everyone else / It’s about being better than yourself.”
“12 Bar Blues” is a funny, half-spoken tune that reminded me of my introduction to Tasjan–his hilarious song “The Streets of Galilee.” The line of the song: “I feel like if writing stuff down really changed anything, a lot more people would know who Philip Levine is.” Hell yeah. In what has to be one of the best promos this year, ALT will play 12 bars in Nashville on the album’s release date.
The album wraps with “Where The Road Begins and Ends,” a somber, plaintive song that feels like a gesture to gospel and classic country songs that underpin so much of what we call Americana now. There’s a perfect B3 Hammond at the bridge and the pedal steel on this song communicates sorrow without becoming maudlin. Tasjan opens it up vocally on the last chorus, digging deep; it’s exalted and sincere and is a perfect end to this album that goes so far but stays so true.