MUTT PLOUGHMAN'S TOP ALBUMS OF 2020
Young Wolf, Young Wolf
The good thing about being a creative artist with the sort of following that might best be described as “slim to none” is that you can commit whatever no-nos you want when you toss something out there. As Wayne Knight once put it in the film Jurassic Park: “You see? Nobody cares.” One such no-no is commonly referred to as nepotism, and although it’s usually used in reference to employment, broadly it refers to giving preference to one’s family members. But hey man, it’s hardly my fault that many well-established musicians released what I might call “so-so” records in 2020, or that my second-favorite album of this weird and scary year happens to have been written, performed, produced, and recorded entirely by my own nephew and godson! You snooze, you lose, “established” artists!! Caleb A. Lovell, who writes and performs under the moniker Young Wolf, released his self-titled, debut album in October, in celebration of his mother’s birthday – a nice touch, and a hint at the young man’s character. And as I have already written this fall in a longer essay, the album far exceeded my expectations and gave me some of the kinds of thrills I was looking for – and largely not finding – throughout the year. Yes, I’ve been in his corner and rooting for him unapologetically since his own birthday. Literally! But I am a close enough listener, I think, to understand that Young Wolf has painstakingly assembled - with minimal tools or insider knowledge at his disposal - seven lush, luminous songs that can inspire older and younger listeners alike to view the world around us differently. At only 20 years old, Lovell’s music is colored by both the advantages and disadvantages of youth – when one’s vision always seems to be expanding and one’s ambitions seem to have no ceiling. Sometimes that leads to less than perfect results, as in the center piece “Cloud Watcher,” a longer, ponderous song that for all its aspirational reach, sometimes feels a little top-heavy. Yet its lyrical tone feels closest to the artist’s core, as he searches for “pieces of Heaven in this life.” But many of the other songs, including “Across the Night,” “It Comes in Waves,” “Season’s End,” and the gorgeous “Embers,” provide ample evidence of Lovell’s appreciation of beauty (in nature and elsewhere) and open-hearted acceptance of grace. This record makes the listener feel like both are present and operating in this world, even today. Now ask yourself: is that a bad way to feel while passing the time in quarantine? Furthermore, Young Wolf has been carefully honing his skills as a guitarist, and this listener thrilled at both the restraint and carefully deployed bursts of energy that are found at timely moments across the album. He also plays skilfully on bass, keyboard, and harmonica. No question, one recognizes the clear influence of Lovell’s many guitar-driven forebears, artists like Mark Knopfler, The War on Drugs, Ryan Adams, and even Bruce Springsteen, throughout this debut. But what artist does not first rise up on the shoulders of giants? The last of that esteemed club, The Boss, once wrote in a glorious and hopeful tune to “meet me in the land of hope and dreams.” Young Wolf’s excellent debut sounds like the work of a promising musician who’s just returned from there, and is ready to share what he found.
SAMPLE TRACK: "Across the Night"
My favorite album(s) of 2020
Songs for Pierre Chuvin/Getting into Knives, The Mountain Goats
“Me and my crew/We will deal with you,” John Darnielle writes in “Aulon Raid,” the first song in a brief, 10-song cycle called Songs for Pierre Chuvin. He released the record this year under the moniker of The Mountain Goats, an extremely prolific musical brand that sometimes consists of a full band, and sometimes is Darnielle acting alone. Songs for Pierre Chuvin was merely the first of two rich, utterly unique albums The Mountain Goats gave us this year, and while they are wildly different, their uniqueness, creativity, and sometimes flat-out weirdness make them feel like two sides of a bewitching, valuable coin that only could have been scraped out of the giant mudslide we’re calling 2020. Thus, while that first line is from a song group that was inspired by Darnielle’s interest in antiquity – specifically, a book he was reading by the eponymous historian Chuvin (1943-2016) called A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, detailing aspects of life in the 5th century A.D. – and sounds more like a threat, it also seems strangely comforting. With The Mountain Goats, we’re in good hands. They will deliver unique, thoughtful, and diverse folk/art/indie rock every time out. Darnielle, who is also a best-selling author and once worked as a nurse tending to troubled teens, has written hundreds of compelling songs. He is broadly recognized as one of our nation’s most effusive and interesting songwriters. In the early 90s, he scratched and fought his way to cult renown by famously recording full albums on cassette tapes and one boom box, astoundingly. Yet his compassionate outlook and ability to give voice to characters whose hopes and fears resonated with listeners began to attract a following. Fast-forward to 2020 and the global pandemic, setting Darnielle and everybody else into exile. The Mountain Goats were at work on what would become their other release this year – October’s Getting Into Knives – but they had to put that work temporarily on ice. Rather than rest on his laurels, which has never been Darnielle’s way, he ripped out ten short but fascinating songs about these ancient ancestors. Using only a guitar and an occasional keyboard, he recorded them into, you guessed it, an old boombox. The result is staticy, low-fi, bare-bones – and every song is compelling. How that works can only be explained by Darnielle’s incomparable lyrics – extraordinarily terse and efficient, they somehow conjure up long-dead worlds while still being resonant today. No other artist could possibly deliver 10 songs in 27 minutes that range in tone from fierceness (“restore the temple of Isis at Memphis”) to simple poetry (“wild grasses on the hill/rippling in the wind”). And if by chance you were ever curious about the events of January 31, 438, there is a song here to help. Incredible. But Darnielle and the Goats still weren’t done. Instead, they went on to produce a remarkable full-band album, Getting Into Knives (officially their 19th), to rave reviews and with such varied tones and subjects and flavors as to boggle the mind. There’s not enough space or time to expound on all this record’s thrills, but the sound is multi-faceted and colorful, with a little bit of everything – guitars, bass, organs, horns, and even some mean clarinet work. It’s nearly impossible to believe all of this diversity in styles and ideas sprang forth from the mind of one man. Getting Into Knives as a whole is a difficult record to grasp in one sitting. The lyrical themes range in all directions – writerly character portraits (“Picture of my Dress”) to poignant meditations on loss (“The Last Place I Saw You Alive”) to biting satire (“Get Famous”) to grungy, near-doom-metal territory (“Rat Queen,” “Wolf Count”). And not to be missed, the musical performances from talented, long-time collaborators Jon Wurster (drums), Peter Hughes (bass), and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas are remarkable throughout. Between these two arresting new releases, The Mountain Goats have demonstrated again that they are among the brightest jewels in the American cultural diaspora. But more importantly, they have also managed to remind artists everywhere that just because things all around us are spiralling every which way, that is no time to lie down and die creatively. “Sing to the moon until your throat’s raw,” Darnielle writes in “Wolf Count.” Indeed. Allow me to warm up my pipes.