On his exquisitely melancholic Love Me Like the Devil EP released last year, Leatherbag’s songs hung heavy in the strains of a cello and slide guitar. There was a mournful air attached to the dreams of escape in songs like “Tennessee” and “New York,” a sadness and desperation that underpinned, and undermined, the illusion of the promise in the open road. On his much-anticipated full-length debut, Nowhere Left to Run, that realization seems fulfilled as Leatherbag sings from the other side of disillusion. Nowhere pines through lost loves, haunted memories and roads taken to their disappointing dead ends, yet, somewhat paradoxically, floats more lightly than his previous efforts.
Expanding his accompaniment primarily to a traditional fourpiece for the album, Leatherbag is able to take his songs in new directions. It’s a move, musically at least, on par with Another Side of Bob Dylan, and the debt to Dylan on songs like “Sister” is fairly unmistakable. But Nowhere just as much shows another side to Leatherbag’s songwriting as well. The ringing electric guitar, touch of fiddle, and surprising flow of trumpet on “Galveston Bay” touch all the right notes to accentuate one of Leatherbag’s best lyrical offerings: “And the rain it hits my windshield / cold, hard and fast / and salvation is somewhere on it’s way / And the Fall is spreading leaves / all across the shoreline / and redemption ain’t comin’ today.” When Leatherbag slowly pulls the line “Jesus is comin’, but He’s comin’ late,” there is simultaneously so much conviction and despair drawn through his voice that entire histories seem echoed within it.
The strength of Leatherbag’s songs always rest on their lyrical narratives – at once simple and direct, yet poetic and beautifully revelatory in their phrasing. So although the full-band does occasionally provide a robustness and diversity that was missing from Devil, it also often overwhelms his songwriting. It’s not so much a difficulty with the band syncing up to Leatherbag’s songs as it seems Leatherbag still feeling out his writing in relation to larger arrangements. On songs like “Omaha” or the title track, the more staid folk-rock riffs drift the tunes into 70’s southern-road-rock territory, and while they certainly work well in that vein, “Galveston Bay” proves the group is capable of better.
Perhaps the best improvement on Leatherbag’s earlier work is the addition of Joey Thompson, whose multi-instrumental contributions provide such a deft touch that he mirrors the singer’s unique, lugubrious turns perfectly. His banjo on the gorgeous “White Doves” intertwines impressively with the backing female vocals of Landry McMeans while the mandolin and Sarah Stokall’s fiddle provide a convincing Appalachian authenticity to the murder ballad of “Cecilia.”
Nowhere Left to Run is duly impressive for a debut LP and further cements Leatherbag’s songwriting reputation. Perhaps most exciting, however, is to watch him develop, even over the course of the album, and constantly push his songs in new directions. While that restlessness guarantees a few misfires along the way, it’s also, as Dylan proved, one of the necessary hallmarks of a great songwriter.
- Robert Darden