Robbie Fulks - Gone Away Backward
Record Label: Bloodshot
Release Date: Aug. 27, 2013
Nobody currently making music does traditional country better than Chicago's Robbie Fulks. Nobody. If 2005's Georgia Hard, 1996's South Mouth or 1996's Country Love Songs were not enough proof, then his current album Gone Away Backwards will probably cement things.
The album opens with the simple and direct "I'll Trade Your Money for Wine," an unadorned charmer that features Jenny Schneiman's violin, a lightly plucked acoustic guitar and Fulks' inimitable vocals. From the first note to the final second, there is an authority and conviction at work in the song that sets the tone for the disc immediately: Gone Away Backward is going to be a force, its going to be powerful and its going to be expertly crafted. While the song is unassuming in its arrangement, the delivery and conviction belie the song's relative lack of sonic oomph.
That tone of restraint and simplicity continues on the quiet and hymnal "Where I Fell," a contemplative and utterly real look of a life gone off the rails. After the hyper-charged bluegrass stomper "Long I Ride," the album takes a giant step forward on the soaring ballad "That's Where I'm From." Slow-moving and more than six minutes in length, the heartland pride anthem rises slowly and marks itself as a song that is as much uplifting as it is identifying.
The first half of Gone Away Backward concludes with the dobro-driven "When You Get to the Bottom" and the traditional instrumental "Snake Chapman's Tune." The former is a song that revisits the sonic arrangement of "Long I Ride" but digs a little deeper, whereas the nearly five minute instrumental "Snake Chapman" is a chance for Fulks and a cadre of immensely talented session musicians to flex their proverbial sonic muscles.
The second half of the disc opens with "Imogene," a dusty and spartan effort that draws on Fulks' deft fingerpicking, but frankly of all the efforts on Gone Away Backward it is arguably the weakest and least impacting. Fulks tries to remedy that with the lightning quick instrumental "Pacific Slope," a near two-minute effort that is sweetly arranged, supremely performed and ultimately very assuaging. The full band returns on "Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener," a sturdy and confident slice of banjo-driven goodness.
For reasons not quite understood by this writer Fulks slows it down again on the fragile and starkly honest confessional "Guess I Got it Wrong." While the song has its many charms and merits its placement at this point on the disc inarguably weakens and slows down the disc's back half. This point is worth noting because the sharply written "The Many Disguises of God" is a spine-tingler that packs an emotional wallop and truly grabs for something deeply contemplative. That sense of emotional torment leaves the listener defeated and wrecked that when the vernal and inspired "Rose of the Summer" comes along there's just little left in the tank. This is of course a problem because "Rose of the Summer" is arguably one of the best songs on the album.
Though the sequencing of the disc's latter half is a bit of a question mark the ingenue and conviction is absolutely foolproof. In a 20-year career, the Columbia-educated Fulks has always done what he wanted on his own terms. That sense of authorship and defiance has helped shape Gone Away Backward into what is easily one of Fulk's best albums in years. A masterwork of first-rate bluegrass, award-worthy songwriting and the very essence of what country music truly is, Gone Away Backward reinforces just how vitally important Fulks is to the Americana songwriter movement and to county music as a whole. Moreover it continues to shed light on why country music remains such an integral and well-preserved genre.
Given the abundance of cookie-cutter schlock that is churned out in Nashville on a yearly basis, Fulks' presence is a reminder that there are a select few who understand the influence and importance of icons like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, The Carter Family and Johnny Cash. Once upon a time, country music was country. It wasn't overproduced, it wasn't sexy, it wasn't glossy. It was straightforward, frank and inherently twangy. For more than two decades, Fulks has understood that better than pretty much any other songwriter in America. One listen to Gone Away Backward proves exactly that.