PostHumous Record Review: Over the Rhine's Drunkard's Prayer

Post-Humous Record Reviews: a personal refection on a long-forgotten album in need of a resurrection. 
There are some albums that find you at a particular moment in your life. As in, they make their way to you irregardless of your own effort. They arrive and make their presence known and then somehow seem as with they have been with you forever.

Over The Rhine's 2005 album Drunkard's Prayer did this to my wife and I. To us it is a life-defining set of songs. Not only did we hold each other close and sway to "I Want You to Be My Love" for the first dance at our wedding, but we can also find each other in the songs' sweet romantic melancholy.

Recently I wrote about this everpresent fear I have that when it comes to art and music and books and movies I feel as if the whole world is at a great party and they are having the greatest time imaginable but I am sat at home alone, not even knowing the party is going on. This fear drives me to constantly seek out works of art both old and new just so I can experience them, just so I can join the party. 

Well, I also have the exact opposite fear, which is that I myself am at one of the greatest parties of all time but only a few people are there and thus the whole rest of the world is missing out. Despite their longterm success and devoted fan base, I feel like Over the Rhine is such a band. I still feel like hardly anyone knows about them and they are worthy of a great deal more renown. I mean, could you imagine if every time Neil Young released an album he only got mentioned on a few independent music websites and blogs instead of getting featured on both NPR and Rolling Stone?

So, my humble aspirations are that I can somehow write something that can move them just a little higher up the pop pantheon, that I can get people to come to this beautiful little party that's been going on for over 20 years now known as Over the Rhine.

Drunkard's Prayer came out the year before my wife and I got married. This is a record sung by mature adults for other mature adults and even though we could not have conceived what it was like to be fully grown up at that time there was something in its raw quiet intimacy that drew this soon to be married couple to it.

Over The Rhine was a band I had heard of for years through going to the Cornerstone music festival but I had never actually listened to them. Their merchandise booth was always covered in these arty photorealistic portraits and still-shots. Whatever they might have sounded like they seemed too mysterious to me; their music must be too out there I thought. But I had no idea as far as genre they were a seamless blend of folk, pop, jazz, and whatever people mean when they say "Americana". In other words, the only thing inaccessible about them was the music assumed a certain amount of heartache, tragedy, and world weariness in its listeners.

A like state is certainly where band members and husband and wife Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler found themselves in at the time they recorded Drunkard's Prayer. Their liner notes, as well as interviews they did at the time, recount how their marriage was in crisis and how they decided to retreat, cancel their concert tour for previous album Ohio, and simply focus on what was left between them. Out of the quiet came long conversations, rekindled love, and this set of songs. Recorded in their home, the songs are imminent and lush, hushed yet still full and warm. They are songs of romance and passion, but the melancholy residue of their shared struggle to stay together clings to every song.

On the music...
The first thing needing to be said about the music on Drunkard's prayer is how stripped back, bare-bones it is. I honestly have no idea how they knew how to show such restraint, how they knew to keep arrangements simple and uncluttered, how they knew when the sound was complete and nothing more was needed. Again, this goes back to maturity— Detweiler and Bergquist somehow know exactly what suits their songs; they know how to serve the song itself. Often, all you will hear are piano and acoustic guitar, with cello, upright bass, percussion, and horns added from time to time. There is room to breathe within every song's sparse yet entirely full composition.

The album came out right around the time when acoustic driven neo-folk acts (Caedmon's Call, Jewel, Goo Goo Dolls, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Smalltown Poets) who took precedence in the 90's were beginning to wear out their welcome. To me it had become a tired sound, and even the bands who made their names hard-strumming those 4 chord intros on their Taylors knew they had to try something different. And yet, that's about all Over the Rhine does on Drunkard's Prayer, being in no way ashamed of starting songs out with just an acoustic guitar and a basic chord progression. Somehow they manage to not fall into any of the acoustic folk trappings of the time. Their sound is their own and still feels fresh today.

As a singer Bergquist is a consummate vocalist. In listening to her over the years I am amazed at her ability to bend not only the pitches of notes but syllables as well. You could make a running list of all the words she manages to say in entirely new ways.* Note how she almost turns "fire" from the song "Spark" into an almost 3 syllable word. She also, like an impressionist, manages to embody myriad moods: from raspy and vulnerable, to defiant, to perturbed, to sultry, to hopefully depressed. She can sound lazy and utterly accomplished all in one impeccably delivered line. She is at one time a booming diva and another a delicate folk singer. 

And Detweiler, as her accompanist, and the band they assemble know exactly how to compliment whatever mood Bergquist sets. His piano playing, much like his wife's singing, is entirely virtuosic but in an unassuming way. Note the numerous ways he riffs on that one chord progression throughout the six minute long "Born."

It is a rare thing when musicians know how to draw attention to themselves but for the right reasons. The wrong reasons are to put on display just how great they are. The right reasons are to invite listeners to enter into the music with them, to enjoy the notes themselves, together, as a communal experience, and to immerse themselves in whatever meaning the lyrics provide. The reason artists exists is to be good enough to show that yes, you can do things musically the average person cannot and yet still manage to get people to focus not on you as a performer but on the music itself and the shared experience it brings. Over the Rhine accomplishes this miracle time after time.

It has been said elsewhere that great albums feel like they have always existed, the sounds themselves remaining untethered to time and place. They simply are. One of the main reasons I am writing this PostHumous Record Review is I would like to put Drunkard's Prayer up on list for all time great albums. Blonde on Blonde, Abbey Road, Rumours, Drunkard's Prayer. And why not? Just because an album did not receive a kind of mainstream acclaim or saturation does not mean it lacks greatness. To me, this album is a classic and should stand the test of time, even though it will most likely be forgotten except by the band's beloved fans.

On the words...
As an almost-breakup album Drunkard's Prayer sure does begin with an act of sweet defiance: "I want you to be my love...I want you to be my love...", the line repeated just in case we were not sure. "I Want You To Be My Love" is a declaration song but it is also a protest song, saying "You know what? It seems like everything has tried to break us apart, from circumstances, to our sin, to our human limitations, to the weight of the world itself. But I'm not going to let that happen. I want you to be my love." The song caresses in its sweetness but there is a boldness to it as well.

As I said above these songs drip with ache, but they are also filled with joy. As much as there is an acknowledgment of the pain they were going through at the time there is also an eagerness to find each other again. More than anything these are songs of reconciliation and rediscovery: "Pour me a glass of wine/talk deep into the night/who knows what we'll find...Put your elbows on the table/I will listen long as I am able/There's nowhere else I'd rather be..." (from "Born"). To think that the person you have spent years of your life with could be made wonderful again, someone you become infatuated with like a crush, that's a counterintuitive (as well as countercultural) thing. Like I said with Arcade Fire's song "Porno", Over the Rhine have made monogamy sexy again and entirely desirable, where, despite the mundanity and seasonal tribulations of it, it is still preferable to living alone or jumping from one person to the next: "You're my water/You're my wine/You're my whiskey from time to time/You're the hunger/On my bones/All the nights/I sleep alone/Sweet intoxication/When your words wash over me/Whether not your lips move/You speak to me..." (from "Drunkard's Prayer"). The end of "Born" extends on for a couple of extra minutes, as if saying, "Come on hon, let's linger in this moment together and just enjoy being in each other's presence. Let's hold each other and dance and find each other again."

Thematically, the whole album can be summed up with a simple realization: "I tried, but I can't imagine life with out you. It'll take work but let's do this thing" as in the song "Little Did I Know":

"Little did I know
That I almost let you go
Until I caught a glimpse of life without you

Little did I know 
How deep these roots had grown
Until I felt the earth quake here
without you...

...There is no home without you"

A Candidate For Greatness
Other than the songs I have already mentioned which I think make this album a classic ("I Want You To Be My Love", "Born", "Drunkard's Prayer" ), I think their more art-song and jazz influenced songs take the album to a whole other level of greatness. The middle of the album is full of a number of mostly excellent though trademark mid-tempo Over the Rhine songs, but some moments of startling greatness occur when "Hush Now", "Little Did I Know", and "Firefly" come on. Honestly, are these not classics of composition, worthy of being recognized by the widest swath of people and sung by voices of great renown? 

Anyway, I don't know how much more I can sell it: 

And so I am bound up with this album; its notes still linger, its words still resonate. Its themes of love and love almost lost are universal enough to apply to nearly everyone and specific enough to hit deep. Over the Rhine's Drunkard's Prayer is an album that deserves to be talked about. It deserves a mythology that people regularly revisit with a kind of awed reverence: "Hey, remember when Linford and Karin almost broke up, but they totally cancelled their tour and went home to focus on their marriage, and all these songs came out of it. Then, they recorded it in their living room! How symbolic is that?" And we will be drawn back in to the music and it will be quiet but we will turn the volume up and play it loud...
*A brief list of words Karin has made her own: "whiskey", "bones", "boy", "fell"
Other Entries in the PostHumous Record Review Series
Newsboys' Love Liberty Disco
This Train's Mimes of the Old West and The Emperor's New Band
Aaron Sprinkle's Bareface
Mavis Staple's We'll Never Turn Back
PostHumous Record Review Week (an introduction)


TxAg03 said...

Great review of a great album. My wife and I got married the year Drunkard's Prayer came out and that has been a favorite of both of ours ever since. Over the Rhine continues to make great music, but this is the album I come back to over and over. The beauty of the music and the richness of the lyrics are timeless!

PostConsumer Reports said...

That's great. We got married right around the same time then.

It's amazing how an album can shape you.