The Black Dirt Sessions
By Kaylen Hann | 25 June 2010
At the end of wrong-doings, carousing, at the end of being hard-done by love, by time, by bros, by ladies, by country, by god and all the above, The Black Dirt Sessions is what’s left. Despite being recorded nearly a year ago, this album is the moment John McCauley is finished and the moment he finds in the wake of it all…absolutely fucking nothing. It’s the aftermath, and in the aftermath a discovery of a dark, dark personal lack of belief, which proves not only to be substantial but also far emptier than he knew. Or thought he knew: each song a realization of just how empty those black godless hollows are, not only in the world—in the people he knows, the gestures between hands—but also in the blacks residing this whole time just behind his own sternum. The swallowing void that resides so many small, incremental fingers below the clavicle.
Song by song McCauley seems to suss out just how dark it is in his own bones, his own heart, how dark it is behind and just between the ribs, the mouth, the blacks of his belly. Right from the opening “Choir of Angels,” where he sings as if he’s accompanying his own death, each track begins sounding out those internal spaces. And in turn each song only unearths the shape of what is missing: who’s on their way out and what isn’t forgiven. Each fragment of his body reveals only more condemnation, unyielding absences, and visceral recesses that just plummet on down and down and down like a bituminous mineshaft into more nothing. His voice taking the brunt force of each fall, acquiring fissures, wrecking itself entirely along the way.
The jangled edges of War Elephant (2007) and rascally drive of Born on Flag Day (2009), are often replaced by a sullen organ, long bars of bass, strings, piano keys with heavy-ass fingers falling down on them, and intermittent hither-and-thither backups ranging from doo-wop to more traditional folk harmonies: overall favoring melody over fill and gloomy soulfulness over raucousness. Even the brief rock-out moment we’re granted in “Mange” is more a sense of damnation realized in some frustrated tangle of a guitar-shredded outro than a moment of indulgence. What makes this (admittedly crawling at times) pace of soulful song after song so tolerable or listenable is—this is some really fucking great writing. From sobered statements like “And the few that care, what have they accomplished right here” to the wrenchingly graphic and curiously tender “Like a heart hung in the sky / A hard-on when I die,” it’s narrow territory he’s covering, but damn is he ever covering it.
Occasionally, in all this solemnity, we catch a brief glint of white off the spine, as he pairs up with the slightest of female vocals for “The Sad Sun,” the small lightness of her voice acting as a silver lining or thread-thin stream of brightness to prick through his gathering thunderhead clouds. Or we find ourselves in a sudden warm pulse of heart muscle in the elegiac “Goodbye, Dear Friend.”
The clincher, though: “Christ Jesus.” The last track of the record, pulled off the debut and like a dead horse beaten back to life—this song just breaks my fucking face. McCauley barks at the darkness, and it barks back. And in this final, infuriating instance he has nothing to say. The extra reverberation around the bass strings as they become less a single note and more a shuddering wire to pull him around by the throat. Piano keys, while usually providing levity of hopeful notes, instead turn to glass and gravel for his voice to belly-crawl across, grating itself down to nothing. Down to fucking nothing. The album ends here, when his voice tires out after pulling its own seams. This last song just leaves him torn up and ground so far into the dirt there’s no coming back. There’s no song I can really listen to after it—there is no follow-up. I listen to it on loop from there, or I just unplug. Done.
Less about rowdy nights or acknowledging what’s coming to him, The Black Dirt Sessions is dead-stuck on absolution and the bitter infuriation at this absolution’s non-presence: taking stock of what’s left in the space at the very end, when he’s reached it. And while not punch-for-punch or track-for-track the heavy-hitter War Elephant was, or even offering the tonal variety of Born on Flag Day, the consistency has come into its own doleful focus, the lyrics have reached a blisteringly high point and for any/all flaws, and, in the end, it just leaves me holding the broken pieces of my face in my fucking hands. And I can’t remember the last time the end of an album left me feeling so totally done-for.