Two weekends ago I rested on my couch and drank black coffee as John Moreland’s tired smoker’s register filled my living room. His new record “In The Throes” is a lot of melancholy things: a worn-out lament, a confession of sins, a plea for forgiveness. But it’s one thing above all these and that’s that it’s distinctly Oklahoman. Much the way Other Lives’ 2011 LP “Tamer Animals” captured all the romantic beauty of our state’s landscape with its non-traditional approach to orchestral arrangements, “In The Throes” tells the character of Oklahoma’s people in 10 little stories that combine to tell a much larger one, accented by a mahogany acoustic guitar tone and just the perfect, occasional touch of pedal steel twang.
“In The Throes” isn’t Moreland’s first go-round. He showcased his gifts as a songwriter and bandleader with the 2011 album “Earthbound Blues”, haunted Oklahoma City’s punk venue The Conservatory for years with The Black Gold Band and has cut his teeth with loads of other metal, punk, and hardcore bands like the short-lived Thirty Called Arson since the early 2000s. But “In The Throes” is a rung or two above just about everything else Moreland’s ever done because it slows down to a pace that’s evocative of the lives of its subject matter and isn’t afraid to give the listener space to linger and think on the words coming out of the speakers. Which are, I think, the most vivid and relatable he’s written.
It sounds like the world’s kicked Moreland ragged, which you can glean from that great title and a lot of his earlier work. But here on “In The Throes” he tells you in a way that just sounds effortless (in reality it’s hardly that easy), using the same smooth-mumbled, blue-collar language that made Bruce Springsteen famous. “I got years’ worth of work / I’m runnin’ low on tools / I been worshippin’ the words / Of weary, worn-out fools” is an early pair of couplets from “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am” where Moreland gives pause between each line, letting the listener mull over the syllables like wine on the tongue. Lesser songwriters aren’t that brave, to give so much room for the audience to actually consider the words they’re saying.
That’s what makes Moreland’s work here so distinctly native to our culture: That thoughtful, straightforward diction is pure Woody Guthrie. The figurehead of folk music proved you could be witty, wise, and original without dealing in fancy jargon or overcooked sentences, and alongside John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, and Beau Jennings, Moreland’s one of the bright, young Oklahoma songwriters carrying on Guthrie’s legacy.
There’s a degree of vulnerability in great songwriting and “In the Throes” finds it on every song. Moreland resists punching the listener’s gut with a guitar riff like he often did in the past and instead breaks hearts by structuring quieter arrangements around these world-weary, often emotionally naked lyrics. “Break My Heart Sweetly” is just as direct and pleading as its title suggests: “I guess I can’t go until you wreck me completely,” Moreland realizes. The songs achieve a sort of southern poignancy marked by the subtle appearance (and just-as-subtle disappearance) of little tambourine shakes and electric guitars that accent instead of rip. I weathered the dingy smoke of Norman’s Blue Bonnet Bar on Saturday to see and hear Moreland in person, and while I was initially dismayed to learn he was playing unaccompanied, the lack of instrumentation only magnified just how great these modest poems are.
And the characters! The people Moreland captures are your neighbors, friends, past lovers, and even the role players who populate the background of everyday life in Oklahoma. They were raised on too much church, but still can’t shake the biblical allusions from their speech, even after years of being mistreated by believers. “Your Spell”’s a sad letter to an old flame where the narrator recalls how the kids from their high school “looked like movie stars” when they were younger. But the nostalgia dies when Moreland spots an old crush in the checkout line at Walmart, a baby in her arms. It’s Moreland saying that life’s often mundane and sad and it never quite lives up to what you hope for.
One last thing: It takes a lot of confidence to write a lament with a pop structure and call it “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore”. It’s a pointed, nearly self-righteous indictment of a songwriter calculating his way to fame but the rising pedal steel guitar melody is too overwhelmingly catchy for anything less than complete and total pop surrender.
Recorded in Bixby and mastered by Chris Harris of Hook Echo Sound in Norman, “In The Throes” pushes into the upper echelon of my favorite albums made by Oklahomans, nestling alongside recent work by John Fullbright, Other Lives, Samantha Crain, and Colourmusic. It’s because Moreland doesn’t flatter me about my home and culture. He tells it like it is.
You can buy “In The Throes” on digital and physical formats at Moreland’s website. He performs at Kamp’s Lounge in Oklahoma City on July 12 and at The Phoenix in Tulsa on July 13.
Matt Carney is the pop music columnist for LOOKatOKC and NewsOK.com’s night editor.