NO MAN’S LAND (2012)
Perhaps it is only fitting that I follow up a review of one of the most celebrated and revered artists in mainstream music with a nearly equally celebrated and revered artists in Christian music. In fact, there are moments on Peacock’s brilliant offering here that may even cause the listener to pause a moment and reflect on some of Dylan’s finer moments. There is a rough, southern Americana, bluegrass, country feel that has been embraced by Dylan’s palette on more than a handful of occasions.
There is so much to like here that a quick review really is an injustice.
After working with the best selling and critically acclaimed and awarded The Civil Wars, Peacock here delivers his own take on truly American music. More bluesy and soulful and clearly less funky and poppy than previous Peacock offering, “No Man’s land” clearly ranks among Peacock’s finest. Do not bother trying to track down any songs on your local CCM station, there is nothing here that will ever grace the airwaves of modern Christian radio. There is a lot of Dylan, Elvis Costello and John Hiatt here, though, as Peacock reaches deep in the American soundtrack to deliver twelve utterly brilliant songs.
Self-produced and self-released, there was no compulsion to create three and half minute radio gems that often populated previous Peacock works. Here the songs are allowed to grow, breathe and develop into real, sparkling gems that will, with very little doubt, last beyond whatever their current format for delivery’s shelf life. I guess a 12 year sabbatical will do that to an artist.
The album starts with the soulful country-tinged “Death Trap.” The lyric comes across as somewhat of lyrical reworking of James’ warning about the tongue. Peacock pleads with the Lord to help him hold his tongue in the face of an angry response, but the struggle seems overwhelming. Peacock also seems to channel the Apostle Paul when he bemoans his own inability to not do what he knows better not to do.
The hauntingly beautiful “Mystic” follows with the one song that sounds like it could have appeared on “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” or at least would have been under considerable consideration by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is probably not too far off of a comparison, but the swampy groove has a touch of John Hiatt as well (other songs later really exploit that wonderful sound).
The more Gospel grooved “Voice of the Lord” is the closest to any previous Peacock material with the brass section and funky groove. Peacock is also more vocally soulful here than just about anywhere else on the project. In fact, the song may have fit quite comfortable on one of the three “West Coast Diaries” projects, while sounding perfectly in place here.
The clear stand out, though, is “Kite In a Tree.” The musical marriage with an utterly brilliant lyric makes for just about a perfect song. I do not know of too many artist that would dare rhyme “construct” with “thumb-suck,” but Peacock not only manages to do, he does it with a intellectually honest discussion of the struggles of faith. The chorus owns the finest hook on the project and the six plus minutes seem all too short. This is where a comparison may find their most difficult representation, but it’s not far from Bruce Cockburn during his “Dragon’s Jaws” days. If any song deserves the “repeat” button it is this one.
“Deep Inside a Word” immediately impressed me as a song Elvis Costello would be proud to include in his repertoire. The song nearly stops at moments and then comes raging back with a little touch of Italian street music combined with Louisiana blues. Peacock is best when his voice feels caught between breaths; struggling for that last gasp of emotion. It is disappointing not to have the credits handy as the musicians deserve major kudos for their performances here.
My dad used to complain that there was too much country on the radio and not enough western. “Let the Dog back in the House” is more the latter than the former. If Peacock could have kept the lyrics simple, perhaps about building a ship to take you over the Jordan, the song could have become a Southern Baptist staple.
The Peacock fan in me makes me love “Beauty Left the Room” all the more because of how much it is completely a “Peacock” tune. His emotional approach to subtle delivery is unsurpassed and is best exemplified on this track. If you can’t “feel it” you are clearly not paying attention.
It would be far to easy to skip passed “Until My Body Comes Undone” because of just how quiet it is. But that would be huge mistake. I don’t know why, but this song, more than any other on the project, reminds me of John Hiatt. Hiatt’s gravelly, swamp-infested voice even seems to influence Peacock’s delivery. It is never rushed. He never lets a work drip passed his lips without pulling every ounce of guts from it. Again, the musicianship here is brilliant as it carries a very slow, at times almost invisible backdrop, for over six minutes, without letting the listener off the hook. If anything, one is drawn closer to the speakers as not to miss a single note.
“Thinkin’ Till the Crack of Dawn” has me completely convinced that if Terry Taylor and company ever needs someone to join The Lost Dogs, it would not be stretch to invite Charlie Peacock. If someone told me the song was co-written by Taylor and Mike Roe I would not have flinched.
Up until now, “No Man’s Land” has been filled with deep, dark and introspective tunes. That all changes with “Ghost of the Kitty Cat.” The rollicking, Cajun-funked bop fest is a sheer delight. There is a touch of rockabilly and a sassy delivery that seems initially out of place against the backdrop of the rest of album, but when taken as a whole, it would have been a great oversight musically to ignore this form of Americana music.
The slower, more emotionally stirring sound returned with “Only You can.” Taking a cue from the Psalms, Peacock is back in the emotional pocket with an introspective look at failings and the need for hanging on to the one who does not fail or fall. Brokenness is a common theme on this project and it matches quite well the musical landscape Peacock has created; few songs fit better than this.
It should be noted that there is not a single “filler” song to be had on this project. Each songs has a life all unto its own. This is most obviously demonstrated with the albums closer, “Satellites.” Soulful and slow, but with a huge musical experience driving the chorus. Previous Peacock projects focused on funky brass section to drive the hook, here they simply carry the melody and heighten the experience. The big chorus that brings the album to a close sounds like it has a chanced to be a live favorite. It also appears to be a studio moment where the musicians could let loose and not be fearful of bringing down the house at Peacock vamps his final words.
Twelve years is far too long between vocal albums from this masterful artists, but a wait worth living as he so delivered on this project. An interesting side note here is that until about 18 months ago, Peacock had no plans to record another pop/vocal album. he had been staying busy producing and writing for others. The project came from some study of his ancestry and the impact of a diverse musical heritage his family experienced. Whatever the reason, this fan is so appreciative to have peacock, the artist, back in true form. I cannot begin to guess where this album would be ranked, but I do not believe any other project outside of “Lie Down in the Grass” would be its equal.