In the mid-1990s, Chicago-based artist Robbie Fulks became known as a sharper-than-a-tack, wry genius staple of the alternative country scene. Today – after ten releases spanning the varied shades of twang (Country Love Songs), somber yet pop-conscious roots-rock (Couples In Trouble), and even Michael Jackson covers (Happy) – he leaves behind the amplifier- and drumkitdriven songwriting which defined his mode. Fulks’s new full-length release on Bloodshot Records returns to the folk and bluegrass sounds that once captured the imagination of a little boy who first picked up a banjo at age seven.
Recorded and mixed by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, Gone Away Backward finds Fulks re-evaluating his roots and lamenting the decline of the small-town and rural America in which he was raised. After 20 years on the road, in 2008 Fulks began performing in unplugged, small-group settings. Regular sessions at the Barbes in Brooklyn and an ongoing residency at Chicago’s Hideout gave him wider freedom to experiment and improvise, and offered intimacy and challenge with a wide variety of musicians. He learned a few hundred new songs and, in the process, developed fresh angles on his own narrative voice. Excited and freshly focused, he began writing music for a new project.
At the center of Gone Away Backward is Fulks’s golddusted vocals and prodigious guitar picking, at times spirited and brisk (“Pacific Slope”), elsewhere spare and sentimental (as on the heartbreakingly gorgeous ballad “That’s Where I’m From”). The album is rooted deeply in the interplay between Fulks and a brilliant cast of Appalachian-style slingers: Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub, and Ron Spears, collectively playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and adding airtight and warm vocal harmonies (just bathe your ears in “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener”).
There is a dynamic humility allowing each song’s anecdotal tale to unfold and construct, built upon the barren honesty of acoustic instrumentation and voice. These are songs drawn out of the rolling hills, harvested from fields with “dirt hard as gravel”, and remembered on the shores of dying rivers. “Long I Ride” is narrated by a drifting troubadour whose gimlet-eyed discontent enlarges, as he moves verse by verse from state to state, from the heat (“I went up on Jackson Hill, at a diner I sat down/and I waved at every stranger just to move the air around”) to the rich (“These New York folks will treat you kind when your wallet’s in your hand/ but a six-string on your shoulder could be the Devil’s brand...I’d trade every brick on Wall Street for one ‘Black Mountain Rag’”) to God (“They say that there’s a wondrous land for any good man that dies/And if it’s got drink and women, well, then I’ll be surprised”). The first-person of “That’s Where I’m From,” by contrast, is a father at the end of a farm-to-middle-class struggle taking melancholy note of his children: “I’ve watched them grow, now I see/One thing separates them from me/And that’s where I’m from.” And by further contrast, the father who sings to his newborn child in “The Many Disguises of God” presents his paternal abandonment as an incident in a dark cosmological pattern, witnessed from without, by revelation.
Gone Away Backward is as hopeful as it is dark, modern as it is historical, foreign just like it’s familiar. It’s autobiographical and all-embracing storytelling. Compassionate while cold-shouldered. City and country. MP3 and dusty 45.