Chris Crabtree calls his new album “a soundtrack to the novel Zen and the Art of Killing Yourself.” I haven’t read the book and don’t feel the need to, because this set of songs stands sturdily on its own. In fact, the album’s climactic centerpiece, "At the Time of My Passing," embraces the weighty implications of death and suicide, either real or imagined, with redemptive tenderness and hope.
Like its recurrent shimmering guitar sustain, that hopefulness permeates this album. It suits Crabtree’s yearning vocal style, somewhere close to the timbre of Oasis’s Liam Gallagher, a little elfin and remarkably soulful. The effect is both grounded and otherworldly, well suiting a record about the enormous risk and equally endless promise in everyday relationships.
The album’s opening hooks sound like a search for truth overwhelmed by emotion. Using a throbbing heart of bass, ringing guitars and emphatic harmonica, “Electric Blue Disguise’s” singer pledges devotion to his beloved despite wondering “what’s behind those eyes.” Chimes ring forth on the anthemic strut of “Counterfeit Love,” a would-be devotional at war with itself.
A weighty mix of electronic wash and percussion add turbulent atmosphere to the confrontation that follows: “Don’t Give Me That” affirms that, despite the difficulty in really trusting another person, our loved ones are key to understanding ourselves and realizing our potential. Such tough truths ground a trilogy of delicately beautiful voice and guitar meditations at the heart of the record.
The last of these, “At the Time of My Passing,” builds back to the size of the opening cuts as one lover reassures the other. Rumbling bass and drums call into a darkness lit by gently probing guitar. This climax eventually works its way to something like a duet in which singer Julie Stirnaman repeats the caress of a line, “you silly thing.”
Menacing organ, ringing guitar and wordless backing vocals turn Julie Miller’s afterlife meditation “All My Tears” into a U2-like anthem. With similar grandeur, “Bus Stop” rails against the death of a relationship, while the most electronic experiment here, “Heat (I Got Some),” approaches the scattered pieces with renewed determination.
The airy and tender “Welcome Back” declares the operation a qualified success. All of the shining elements (including the most ethereal of backing vocals) are here, though muted. The song only reaches for something like triumph when the singer refuses to “be undone by a bullet or a gun.”
After that, the album brings all of its tentative hope to a gorgeous “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” A mix of the album’s rough and tumble characters, and presumably a few lonesome souls off the street, wander in to offer an impassioned reading of a line or two and add another layer to the chorus. The effect is every bit as tentative and tender as the reach for love that’s been palpable since the album’s start.
Kansas City-area music journalist Danny Alexander is the associate editor of Rock & Rap Confidential and author of Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige, out in 2016 from the University of Texas Press.