Andrew Combs‘ 2015 album, All these Dreams, catapulted him to the forefront of modern Nashville pop music. Away from the turgid embrace of the country bro’s he was mining a rich seam of sixties melodicism inspired by the likes of Roy Orbison and Jimmy Webb. His follow up, Canyons Of My Mind (a nod perhaps to Bob Lind’s mid sixties hit, Elusive Butterfly), is a more complicated affair, a heady mix of his tried and tested melodies with strings along with a tougher, punchier approach. This is evident from the beginning as Heart Of Wonder opens the album in dramatic fashion as his wavering voice proclaims, “I have run through the valley, I have stormed the shore” over a portentous beat. Like a storm cloud the song darkens, Combs glowers like an old testament prophet as a gnarly electric guitar starts to crackle before bursting into an angry solo over a insistent jangled piano. Riding the waves the song dips and rises before bowing out with a fierce sax solo leaving the listener somewhat exhausted.
It’s a bold start, an indication that Combs has something on his mind and it turns out that much of the album is inspired by his readings of the likes of Charles Wright and Jim Harrison, poets who have hymned the American wilderness. So while there are moments of countrypolitan bliss as on the free flowing Rose Coloured Blues (which recalls Glen Campbell) much of the album is darker, informed by ecological concerns and the current state of his nation. The lead single from the album, Dirty Rain exemplifies this as Combs sings of, “Poison River, muddy water…plastic people stacked in towers with nowhere to go.” That he sings the song in a plaintive voice over a building sweep of strings is dramatic, the end result like Roy Orbison singing a lyric by JG Ballard. Blood Hunters is a cold glimpse into a feral dystopia, the song fuelled by jagged shards of guitar while Bourgeois King is a parable which rails against the bourgeois king who wants to build a wall to keep us safe and promises to make the country great again. No prizes for guessing who this is about but Combs delivers it with a huge sonic palette starting the song out as a jagged bluesy wail before it descends into a smorgasbord of unleashed strings and flute recalling the free jazz of the sixties.
These diatribes sit within a brace of songs that continue in the vein of the previous album. Aside from the aforementioned Rose Coloured Blues there’s the Sixties gaslight romance of Hazel, part Greenwich Village, part Parisian chanson. Lauralee is unabashedly romantic recalling the sound of David Gates’ Bread while What It Means To You is a good old-fashioned country styled waltz. There’s a further twist as Combs slips in two songs, Sleepwalker and Better Way, which have a fine full bellied band sound with a prominent bass sound, the latter in particular indebted to the sound of Joni Mitchell circa Hejira. All together they add to the variety on offer but Better Way especially might nod to another direction this eclectic artist might follow.
Canyons Of My Mind is unquestionably a move on from its predecessor, a songwriter flexing his muscles and casting his eye around. Given the results Mr. Comb is shaping up to be considered in the same breath as the likes of Jackson Browne if he continues to forge ahead.