Album Review: Shovels & Rope – By Blood

Shovels & Rope launched their new album By Blood during the week of their triumphant High Water Festival homecoming. The band have recently had a second child so it’s no surprise really that at times on this album they sound run ragged, desperate and depressed, other times as exhilarated and euphoric as they ever have. The musical chemistry between Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent appears closer than ever – bonded by their family and the blood of these songs that pulsate through their veins.

From the opening of the record there’s a sense that they are ready to start again, singing on I’m Comin Out about being ‘a new born fawn’ with the ‘taste of blood in my mouth’. Metamorphosis and change infuse the song’s lyrics and sonically it’s the most adventurous they’ve probably ever sounded, layering some more unusual sounds in the mix. They’ve got their best suits on and they mean business.

The more rocking sound of Mississippi Nuthin’ is perfect for this story song, a cautionary tale about what happens to the popular kid after high school. You can imagine that when your band makes it big there’s always someone you used to know who comes out of the woodwork and sees your success as a personal insult, as though they have to prove themselves in comparison. It’s a depressingly realistic story and damn great song.

Cary Ann takes the lead on The Wire. I won’t fail you, she sings with certainty, reminding her partner to have to have faith in her as they walk the tightrope of life together. The frenetic drumming adds to the strength of the resolve in this song.

C’mon Utah! is a song inspired by their daughter’s inquisitive questions about the inequalities of life. It tells the story of a man separated from his family, soon to be turned into a children’s book. The current political climate just makes this one resonate even more.

The vocal duties are equally shared on Carry Me Home, both singers sounding ‘burned out to the bone’. At High Water they sang this one across the stage from each other, separation and distance unusual in two performers who usually invade each other’s space so freely. By the chorus they admit that they’re no good alone, seeking the comforts of each other and home.

Storms are also brewing on Twisted Sisters, about impending tornadoes. By the end of the dramatic song they collapse into the repeated refrain of Say goodnight, like it’s the end of the world.

Then a moment of quieter reflection on The Good Old Days, about the pain of the present, writer’s block and the comfort of nostalgia. Pretty Polly is an old murder ballad, reimagined by Trent. Hammer is closest to a straight Americana sound, a working song about being ‘out here every day with my hammer’. It’s surely about the music business too, and the drudgery that ensues, even in an artistic career.

The album finishes with the title track ‘By Blood’ about dealing with the changes of fatherhood and family: ‘There is no space, there is no time’. The ideas that love can separate and suffocate as well as unite does make you wonder about how hard it must be to work and live together in the way this band does. In the end, despite the hardships they belong to each other: ‘you are mine’.

The album is a visceral howl at times, so much of it propelled by that raw intensity of Trent’s vocals and tempered by the harmony of Hearst. It’s a powerful potent piece of blood magic, with songs as good as they’ve ever sung. Don’t miss it.


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