Truly illustrious albums change your life in ways that are indefinable. They show you the world from a diverse point of view and are cathartic and soothing pieces of art that become vital to your life. Bruce Springsteen's 'Tunnel of Love', Bob Dylan's 'Blood On The Tracks' and Peter Gabriel's 'Us' are among the bloodiest, truthful and devastating collections of songs ever created. There's something intensely remarkable about the emotions that come into play when a relationship comes to an end. We're overcome with this feeling of desperation and feel completely and utterly lost. We try to find the light through escapism but even then it doesn't always work and we struggle to find our way home. But when you drop the needle on 'Blood on The Tracks' and hear "Tangled Up In Blue" a sense of reprieve comes over you because all of a sudden there's someone else out there who feels precisely the way you do. When you find albums like these, they become more than just pieces of plastic or digital files but guides that help us save our lives. Will Hoge's 'Draw The Curtains' is one of these rare albums.
'Draw The Curtains' is a collection of ten stunningly crafted songs that are as multifaceted as the relationships he sings about. This album stirs your soul and yields a genuine truth so rarely found in today's music with each song essential to the underlying theme. Instead of writing one or two melodic songs to get on the radio, Hoge has gone down the road less traveled and has shaped an emotionally severe and intuitive masterpiece that is not just timeless but most likely the best album of 2007. This is an album deeply embedded in reactionary tales that permeate into you more and more with every listen. We all need a catalyst to hold onto so we can crawl outside of our skin and look inward and for many, including myself, I look to music to transform me and 'Draw The Curtains' is my new best friend.
Hoge continually embodies the rock and soul godfathers who have come before him but he remains distinctively original as he embodies the best of his influences. His music is an homage of those who have come before him by pledging allegiance to these rock and soul godfathers, notably the Allman Brothers Band for their musical prowess and Otis Redding whom Hoge channels his vocal intensity. These elements are combined with tumultuous, succinct and prosaic lyrics that find their way into gorgeous harmonizing melodies. Will Hoge distills decades' worth of canonical influences in his music and while I often compare him to others, I must make it abundantly clear that he is an artist with his own vision. He has taken courses in the fundamentals of rock n' roll and knows what it takes to inspire and transform.
Hoge's iridescent vocal twang rings true and when you listen to his voice he evokes indescribable feelings, most notably on the album's opening number, "When I Can Afford To Lose". It's a peculiar choice to open the album with a ballad, but by doing so, Hoge has laid out all of his emotions on the line. The lyrics are something out of a Cameron Crowe film, the narrator aches with vulnerability and his vocal is poised with agony but there is also haunting desperation. I'm not sure if I have ever such bare poetic agony before. Ballads rarely open albums and succeed ("Round Here" by the Counting Crows comes to mind as one of the transcendent ones) but on "When I Can Afford To Lose" Hoge lets us into his world of pain with scars so deep, you wonder if he'll ever recover. As I listen to the song, it's almost uncomfortable to hear it. It's not as flashy as a roadhouse rocker but it sets the mood for the album. He sings fluently about more than a broken heart but a broken man. Complimenting the sublime vocals and lyrics is a bare production style, yet it has the best overall texture of any of his records to date. His last album, 'The Man Who Killed Love' was the benchmark for production, but he surpasses himself on 'Draw The Curtains'.
"These Were The Days" finds Hoge being nostalgic but with a clear eye on living in the future on the album's strongest potential for a hit single while "Silver Or Gold" is a minimalist bluesy ballad featuring a killer B-3 Hammond Organ. The bar room boogie backbeat of "Sex, Lies and Money", similar to the jolting "July Moon", soars with its hot-blooded and unrepentant drive. In the heart-on-his-sleeve ballad, "I'm Sorry Now", Will provides a declaration forgiveness which features a lingering and recurring violin in the background of the mix. The upbeat "Midnight Parade" is a buoyant number that evokes John Mellencamp at his best with a dash of slide guitar.
"Dirty Little War" shows a young artist far more mature than anyone would guess. The acoustic number with a sparse yet effective accordion and slide guitar is gut-wrenching but it crawls under your skin like a song from Dylan's 'Blood On The Tracks'. Hoge has the amazingly ability to put himself in the shoes of someone else yet simultaneously make it feel profoundly personal. It's a divorce tale performed with an endearing melody, a rare feat to juggle a subject matter this serious and have it sound so tuneful.
The title track, "Draw The Curtains", gives the affecting and evocative feeling I had when I first heard Dylan's "Not Dark Yet". A subdued yet highly affective horn is placed subtlety in the background that creeps up on the listener like a lover's gentle breath on the back of your neck. When I hear the lyric, "I fall into your arms like rain", I sit back and just smile at the striking poetics. The song is heartrending without being too maudlin. It paints the perfect picture of faith and hope which is possibly why it became the title of the album. There have been times when we find ourselves drifting throughout life, after being beaten down by it, wanting a second chance, a rebirth and a new day. We're not sure if the characters in the song make it to the promised land, but we do know they have a keen eye on the hopefulness of a second chance and that is really all that matters.
"Washed By The Water" may be the preeminent song Hoge has ever committed to tape. Written in the aftermath of Katrina, Hoge brings soul and optimism to a tragic situation. Within weeks of the tragedy, a live version of the song appeared on his web page and when it didn't make 'The Man Who Killed Love', I was afraid this was one of those songs that would never find its way to a studio album. The Hammond B-3 organ on this song is amalgamated with uplifting production. The sum of the band and their instruments create a sweeping and defiant sensation that almost makes you feel like you were right in the studio when they cut this. If this doesn't send shivers down your spine, then nothing in life will.
"The Highway's Home" is a song Hoge has been performing for a few years and having it amalgamated with "Washed By The Water" at the end of the album is ethereal and poignant. When he sings "I'm moving on" it's the definitive moment on the album. He has a revelation that he holds the keys to his own cage. We all overwrought with grief and heartache but how do we inject ourselves with faith again? That answer lies within us and for Will it's hitting the road, his true home where he creates music full of heartache and open-road romanticism. Hoge's lyrics address ghosts of the past and somehow, somewhere he's looking for a spiritual awakening by coming to terms with these relationships and by the album's closing track, "The Highway's Home", he's found it.
Will Hoge sings these songs like a lost bluesman. The rockers are full of roadhouse exuberance that are so smoky sweet I felt like I was in a bar where the liquor flows like a river and the smoke wraps itself around you like a cloud. In the last two-years, Hoge has masterfully crafted two perfect albums constructed of ten songs each filled with heartache, hope and romantic giganticism. We all know someone who yearns for the good old days and have lost faith in modern times and technology. Back in 1994 when I would meet a cynic who would tell me "they just don't make movies the way they used to", I'd told them to go and see 'The Shawshank Redemption' so they could recapture not just their own personal faith but in the film medium as well. The next time someone tells me "they don't make albums like they used to", I'm going to tell them to buy Will Hoge's "Draw The Curtains" so they can have that same spiritual awakening.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door.