label: Sugar Hill
our score: 5.0 out of 5.0
This is the bravest country album of the year. It might be the bravest country album of all time. It’s also beautiful and sad and funny and bleak and nihilistic and honest, and the songs are perfectly constructed, and Moorer’s voice is just as full of hard-edged loveliness as ever. But it’s not easy to listen to. This is a record torn from someone’s guts, born under a bad sign, shorn of all ornament and fake smiles and frippery. This is the sound of someone fighting for her life.
As well it should. Allison Moorer had to fight to get this record made. She has played the Nashville game, and doesn’t like what it did to her soul. So it’s an appropriately dirty-sounding record; it sounds like Crazy Horse records from the early 1970s (“I Ain’t Giving Up On You”) and barrelhouse Dylan (the title track) and Big Star crossed with Stax crossed with Springsteen (“Louise Is in the Blue Room”). It’s a rock/country/soul/folk hybrid sound, all the ingredients that everyone else uses but different, desperate-sounding, and maybe a little deranged.
That proves to be perfect for the songs on this record, on which Allison Moorer finally turns her back on everything. Every record she’s made has been progressively more rebellious, tougher, edgier, and she basically declared war on Nashville on last year’s live album Show with “Break Before I Bend.” But this album doesn’t even bother going after easy targets like that; she’s after bigger game here.
Take “All Aboard,” for instance: it’s a long tense twisty six-minute song that manages to completely obliterate knee-jerk unthinking American patriotism: “Sign up and get a flag / Wear it proudly, you can brag / To the fools who didn’t volunteer” actually sounds like a verse from one of the twelve Toby Keith songs of the last couple of years, but the way she spits the words out like an angry cobra helps you realize that she’s being sarcastic right before she hits you with the second half: “Some restrictions do apply / Watch your mouth and close your eyes / And we allow no yellow foreign queers”. If there’s anything braver than a country singer doing a song that rejects “American Soldier”-style gauzy-eyed jingoism in 2004, I have yet to think of it.
But that’s not all. On the title track, Allison Moorer rejects God himself. Well, it’s technically the song’s protagonist, who has lost her lover; but still, it’s Moorer, and it’s poetry, and it’s harsh as the fact of death itself: “In this cemetery mist / Stands a newborn atheist / Even if you do exist / You’re far from almighty”. The “duel” of the title seems to be between God and human, or the idea of “God” and human, or between humans who believe that God can solve all their problems and those who know He can’t, or won’t, or between life and death, or all of these all rolled up into one ballad. But when, at the end, Moorer whispers that “The king of kings has lost his crown / It’s buried here in marble town / In the god forsaken ground / With my only love,” it’s hard to keep your eyes dry.
Moorer and her co-writer/husband Doyle Primm are hardly mean or merciless here – if anything, this is what happens when you feel too much. She’s seen people give themselves over to religion to solve all their problems, so when she drops the image of a man drowning at his own baptism in “Believe You Me,” it’s supposed to sting so you can feel it. Her song about being lost (in drugs? in fame?), “When Will You Ever Come Down,” isn’t mean about “the monster in the mirror,” just concerned and empathetic and not afraid to tell the truth…hey, she might even be talking to herself, the way she’s doing on her harshest (and funniest) portrait, that of the self-aggrandizing folksinger “Melancholy Polly.”
The truly remarkable stuff comes at the end, though. The second-to-last track, “Once Upon a Time She Said,” is a song in which she admits to herself that she will never change the world through her music because she’s not good or pure or strong enough (“I don’t have it in me / A bullet needs a gun / And in the land of plenty / They need a champion / I’m one more of many / Not a lion in the sun”). Then, to finish it off right, she sings a lullaby called “Sing Me to Sleep,” where she begs us to sing <I>her</I> a lullaby so she can die in peace. We have become her dead mother. We can only assume that when the song is over, so is her life. It’s the most gangsta album ending in ten years or more.
I hope you understand me when I say The Duel is not an easy album to hear. I also hope you understand me when I say that it is the most continually rewarding and toughest and bravest album I’ve heard this year. Allison Moorer rejects God and the U.S.A. and the country music establishment all at once, and still manages to set the standard for what can be done in a country record – hell, on ANY record. “Not a lion in the sun” my ass, Moorer; you’re the bomb and you know it, because you just dropped it.
liked The Duel ...
1. I Ain't Giving Up on You
2. Baby Dreamer
3. Melancholy Polly
4. Believe You Me
5. One on the Mouse
6. All Aboard
7. The Duel
8. When Will You Ever Come Down
9. Louise is in the Blue Moon
10. Once Upon a Time She Said
11. Sing Me to Sleep