This 14th album from singer songwriter Terry Lee Hale is an enigmatic affair. It seems a deeply personal record and it’s certainly an intimate listen. Hale’s voice, somewhat wearied, is not a million miles removed from the Zen wisdom of Leonard Cohen while the song arrangements are spare, allowing his words to flow unimpeded. The words envelop a world suffused with aging, memory and regret without ever plainly stating their case. The closest there is to a narrative is on Alive Inside as, over an impressionist soundscape, Hale details the locked in misery of dementia, but the majority of the songs are more abstract , poems almost, set to music, the words flowing. Hale sums it up when he sings, “Time is a river just running away.”
Recorded with remote assistance during the pandemic Hale and his producer, Chris Eckman (of The Walkabouts) enlisted the support of Ziga Golob on contra bass for most of the songs along with occasional keyboard, pedal steel and violin input while an old Seattle buddy, Claire Tucker, sings on two of the numbers. Her multilayered contributions to Gone help to make this valedictory number the one song here most akin to Cohen’s latter songs while Hale invests it with a world weary, almost saddle sore regret. There’s a slight, oh so slight, cowboy lament to it as Hale bids goodbye to a lonesome stranger. The pull of the old west is also discernible in the opening number Oh Life where Hale waxes somewhat philosophically on our cradle to grave journey, his yearning vocals leaning towards Hank Williams, albeit with a Camus and Lou Reed bent, the latter recalled particularly by Catherine Graindorge’s violin with its echoes of John Cale’s Velvet Underground work.
The pensive and dream like Fish features some of Hale’s superlative guitar playing along with washes of pedal steel guitar (played by Jon Hyde) while Curve Away is dense and claustrophobic, the lyrics almost apocalyptic as they evoke a feeling similar to that of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s followed by the bluesy wallow of Time Is A River which, in an opaque fashion, seems to be about the eternal struggle to overcome adversity with Hale sounding as much as a sage as Dylan on Time Out Of Mind. The album closes with Hale on his own on All Fall Down, his take on our current affairs if we’re reading it right as he sings of scorched earth politics and the policies of cruel. You can make your own mind up about who he is singing about in the line, “Hard to get around the elephant in the room” but we’ve made our mind up already.
Following on from his excellent albums, The Long Draw and Bound, Chained Fettered, The Gristle & Bone Affair finds Terry Lee Hale in top form. He’s a unique songsmith who has crafted a signature sound which is deeply immersive, meditative and thought provoking.