In September 2007, I made my first trip to the fabled Austin, TX, to attend the Austin City Limits festival in Zilker Park. Among the 30+ acts I saw that weekend was Steve Earle, a long-time favorite of mine.
At the time we were in town for ACL, Steve Earle was about to release his album Washington Square Serenade, which at the time, none of us had heard (or heard about). In the car on the way to Zilker that day, I read an Austin Chronicle interview with Steve in which he describes current-day Austin as a city that broke his heart by becoming “just about money, real estate, and shelling out for a latte” and how he had since emigrated to (ahem) Manhattan.
By this point, I had become used to people telling me about how every place in the country (including Portland) used to be much cooler and more authentic. But it’s my first time in Austin and it’s like 200 degrees and I have heat rash and I just want to see Steve Earle live. And so they start bringing his gear onto the stage, including, somehow…turntables. At which point my friends and I are look at each other, silently asking “Who is this person and what has he done with Steve Earle?”
(Which, essentially, is what Steve Earle asks himself about Austin, so let’s all try to accept change and move forward.)
The opening track of Earle’s Washington Square Serenade is “Tennessee Blues,” which is his goodbye letter to Nashville (and the south) upon moving to New York. It’s one of the few tracks on the album I actually enjoy and is sonically consistent with his earlier work. The chorus calls out, “This ain’t never been my home” and lets you damn well know that he’s singing into the rearview mirror and he’s got no regrets.
So when Kasey Anderson writes his goodbye letter to Bellingham, WA in the form of his newest album, Nowhere Nights, he opens with the refrain “This ain’t never been my home.” This nod to Earle is intentional, but Anderson soon lets you know his break from Bellingham wasn’t all that clean, and he may have a few regrets.
He bookends the album with “Bellingham Blues” and “Real Gone”. The latter is an angsty (perhaps angry) seven-and-a-half-minute exploration of his exodus from a small college town, back to his home-base of Portland, Oregon. In between, he provides nine tracks outlining the usual adventures in love and loss, but with unusual self-awareness. It’s a gorgeous album, alternating between up-beat bar tunes and slow-bleeding ballads, and Kasey’s lyrical prowess elevates each track to a meditation on the common themes that make up the backbone of country music.
Lyrically, he explores how sense of place gets wrapped up in our sense of ourselves. But when Kasey writes about “heading back down south”, be clear that he’s transversing Washington state to get to Portland. If you listen closely enough you might hear Kasey’s drawl echoing off what can only be rain-soaked streets.
If I was to levy one criticism of this album, it may be that it’s musically too derivative — of early Steve Earle, or current incarnations thereof. But, if the alternative is false nostalgia and listening to Steve Earle playing turntables and singing about Manhattan and his seventh wife, well — I’ll happily throw on Nowhere Nights.
Note: The notable exception to this post and the introspective theme of this album is the following track, “I Was a Photograph”, which you can read about here and here. If you listen to this song, please read the original article.