The Grateful Dead co-founder’s latest proves well worth the wait.
After more than 30 years, Bob Weir returns with his first album of all-new material, Blue Mountain. With a little help from singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and Aaron Dessner, the Grateful Dead co-founder’s latest proves well worth the wait. The production is often haunting, spare and demonstrative of a man who’s lived a rich, full life. Weir plays and sings with an uncommon passion and a deep knowledge that comes only with the grace of aging.
Opening track “Only a River” finds him singing about a return to a place of healing and hope, something that the kinship of music has no doubt provided him in his more than 50 years as a performer. Big, booming drums (courtesy of Ray Rizzo) help carry the listener to a place of wide open skies and cool water. The lyrics throughout the album are rife with images of cowboys, oncoming night, angels and finding one’s place in life. It doesn’t exactly feel like a farewell, but there are hints of that via the aptly-named “Cottonwood Lullaby.” Weir may be older, his voice may not rise to the heights it once did, but there’s a sweetness now that wasn’t there before.
“Gonesville” doesn’t feel so much like a kiss-off to a life that no longer suits him as much as a celebration of finding rebirth. It affords a temporary escape within a life now far from the complications of the past. In so many ways, it is in tune with the songs of rambling and wandering he’s sung all these years either on his own or with the Dead. Between his ever-reliable guitar playing and Ritter’s fine lyrics, it comes off as one of those songs that’s always been with us; a portrait so vibrant and real that we can’t help but believe that it arrived with the Big Bang.
The same might be said of the achingly good title track. Weir doesn’t try to hide the roughness of his voice. You can hear his age as he unravels the story of a man finding his soul in nature and regaling us with tales of a life most only wish they could live, far removed from the daily grind. When he sings about these places, open and wide, or abandoned (“Ghost Towns”) he does it like no one else can and so few care to. On closing track “One More River to Cross,” Weir sings that he still has “one more” in him. That’s not just one more album, one more song, or one more love; it’s one more celebration of the bounty we find in living, even through the most difficult and harrowing times.
Though this is a record full of tradition, it avoids cliché. “Lay My Lily Down” owes a debt to murder ballads, but maintains enough ambiguity that we piece the story together for ourselves rather than relying on a narrator to let the lines drip with blood. “Gallop on the Run” paints a portrait of a man missing his lover but never falls to sentimentality. “Whatever Happened to Rose” finds the narrator looking back on friendships and places that have disappeared, yet never with a sense of bitterness and overwhelming sadness. Instead, it reveals a character confident that he’ll carry on, whether alone or with the comfort of memories. “Darkest Hour” may be the most celebratory of the collection, a spiritual companion to Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” It’s not as much a plea of companionship as it is an appreciation of it; the outlaw settles down and reveals the tender quarters of his art to a worthy companion.
Whether the album’s narrator is or isn’t Weir, he alone knows for sure. But for our purposes it could be. He shows us his vulnerability across these songs: The vulnerability of a man moving into an age when his friends and hopes are no longer what they once were; the vulnerability of a man admitting loneliness; the vulnerability of a man who probably knows that he shouldn’t be as defiant about these changes but who ultimately can’t help himself because he wants more of what he’s always had: life. In these songs and performances, he shows us that he is probably the truest and best he’s ever been. For a man who some would argue has nothing left to prove, he works against that belief to demonstrate that even after all these years he still has a hunger for companionship and that next something just over the horizon.