When Richard Youngs agreed to record a country album for his debut on Ba Da Bing Records, it was like he had accepted a dare. “I haven’t got a country bone in my body,” he admitted to Ben Chasny in his 2012 BOMB Magazine interview. Label boss Ben Goldberg had given Youngs a whole list of dream records he’d like hear from him, which means other options must have been on the table, but the British singer-noisemaker elected to try his hand at America’s Appalachian offspring anyway.
What he ended up with doesn’t sound like Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams at all, though there’s more going on here than meets the ear. Youngs uses all the right tools—acoustic and slide guitar, banjo, harmonica—but his songs are looser and more exploratory than most things in the country canon. Looser because they sound as if they were committed to tape by osmosis; Youngs captures most of his ideas rough-hewn and leaves them that way. More exploratory because, without a drawl or a connection to the style’s traditions, and without a backing band to rein him in, Youngs is free to improvise on his idea of the country sound and free to ignore the usual conventions.
Youngs opens the album with “Mountain of Doom,” singing lyrics penned by his son, Sorley. He plays the songwriter role as straight as he can, setting the scene for what will follow with a simply strummed guitar and some heavy harmonica blowing. Then he dashes straight through “Misjudgment,” which is nothing more than a brief parade of galloping six-string rhythm and treated vocals. It doesn’t stick around long enough to sound quite like anything, but it builds a bridge to “Spin Me Endless in the Universe,” which reads like a more literal take on Gram Parsons’ idea of a “Cosmic American Music” and is one of the album’s best songs.
Over the top of a simple, one-two plucked rhythm and a cascading slide solo, Youngs lets his best falsetto fly. Echoing some of the lyrical themes from “Mountain of Doom,” Richard reflects on big subjects: heroism, truth, virtue, integrity, persistence, and good-natured honesty. His high voice suggests that he’s singing from a youthful perspective, and on paper it all looks a bit wistful, but the delivery is matter-of-fact and the refrain sounds more like meditation than wishful thinking. The music is equally playful and absolutely brilliant. The rhythm doesn’t change much over 11 and a half minutes, but Youngs’ slide guitar never stops moving. He constantly bounces all over the neck, fluttering like a moth on the strings, rising and falling through a series of mesmerizing melodies aimed at the stars.
Youngs then pivots into reflective mode for “Summer Through My Mind,” and that’s where he stays for most of the album’s second side. He muses about his “deep fried life,” puzzles over the parts of his childhood that have carried into fatherhood, and serves up an adolescent story of his own in “The Story of Jhon.” That song features Omaha native Simon Joyner flatly reading lines from Youngs’ fantasy, which involves a wicked father, child slavery, pirates, time bombs, and an embarrassing incident at the BBC studios. Youngs repeats every line after Joyner, singing them over some of the album’s blues-iest melodies. It underlines how clumsy childhood stories are, and it recalls a lot of good country ballads with their villains, heroes and trials. Only there’s no resolution.
That comes in the form of two final, bittersweet songs. “Binary Stars Over Venice” is a semi-romantic smear of dueling guitars and stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Youngs mingles images of a Venice sky, “spectral beings in pain” and helicopters, but still manages to sound melancholy. “Goodbye Oslo Rose” magnifies that feeling and adds a twist of universal loneliness. Above the steady hum of an e-bow, his harmonica sounds almost breathless—broken, uncertain and struggling to make a defiant sound.
The music is pretty but the feelings it dredges up hurt. Youngs departing words remind us of the “roar of the stars” and of how brief mortal life is—the move from childhood to old age happens so quickly that we never quite shake our youthfulness off. It’s hard not to wonder with him whether it all means anything anyway. And with that Richard Youngs proves himself a bit of a liar. It may be that he doesn’t have a country bone to stand on, but he obviously knows all about the music’s spirit.