A deeply moving collection of crossover Americana.
On their self-titled debut in 2013 and Then Came the Morning in 2015, the Lone Bellow stuck to a simple but effective Americana formula: earnestly strummed or finger-picked verses followed by rousing choruses rich with the gospel harmonies of Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist. The albums were devoted to honky-tonk stompers, country ballads and folksy sing-alongs, lyrically mired in themes of love and loss. Coupling these releases with charismatic live performances equal parts stomp-inducing and tear-jerking, the band ascended the rungs of the Americana ladder.
Now sitting comfortably near the top, the band decided to relocate from Brooklyn to Nashville, the epicenter of Americana and country music, for their third album, Walk into a Storm. Working with famed producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) at RCA Studios in Nashville allowed them to refine their harmony-drenched sound. With Cobb behind the boards, Walk into a Storm takes the musical and lyrical highlights from the band’s first two records and rejuvenates them with more sophisticated arrangements – layering in strings here, adding in a lap steel there – in order to enhance each song’s sorrowful lyrics. Although the move to Nashville hasn’t reinvented the wheel for the Lone Bellow, it has helped them make their most refined record to date, as well as their most emotionally trying.
Album opener “Deeper in the Water” begins with a country blues hewn guitar lick that opens space for Lone Bellow’s familiar Americana sound and Williams’ vocals. The opening line, “I break my back to make a name,” contains a poignant double meaning detailing the band’s professional and personal tribulations. On the one hand, it suggests the amount of hard work the band has put in to achieve their success. On the other, it conjures the tragic accident that inspired the formation of the band in the first place. Stacy Williams, Zach’s wife, had suffered a broken neck and was initially diagnosed as a quadriplegic after a horse-riding accident. To process his grief, Zach began to write songs, and soon the Lone Bellow was born. Although the rest of “Deeper” doesn’t linger on this accident—Stacy has healed remarkably enough—this opening line (as well as the opening of “Between the Lines”) suggests both the strain and tragedy that not only propels the band’s creativity but that also permeates the rest of the record.
Yet, like most Lone Bellow songs, “Deeper” remains uplifted by its open-hearted vocals. In the chorus, Pipkin plays off of the main harmonies, as her responding line, “Deeper in the water,” ripples with reverb. The band eventually returns to the song’s opening blues lick and build it into a roiling double-time outro readymade for audience participation. The band reanimates the energy of this outro again and again throughout the album—most notably on the Pipkin-led stomper “Feather,” the honky-tonk barnstormer “Time’s Always Leaving” and the driving pop song “Can’t Be Happy for Long.”
Of course, such countrified vigor offers a sonic contrast to the album’s slow burners that simmer with emotional pathos. “Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy” offers a slow swaying sing-along, full of gospel-inflected harmonies that are sweetened by the addition of a lap steel. “May You Be Well”—a song Williams penned to his oldest daughter, Loretta—is a string-laced affair, rolling with emotional ebbs and flows. Although some of the string flourishes near the end of the song encroach upon Verve territory, the song remains a perfect example of how Cobb’s production and arrangements enhance the beauty of the band’s music.
The emotional centerpieces on the album are “Come Break My Heart Again” and its titular track. Another string-swept and piano-driven ballad, “Come Break My Heart Again” locates human feeling at its most powerful when confronting the difficulties of loss, potential or real: “Come break my heart again/ So I can feel it.”
In light of the tragic consequences of the many hurricanes that have recently swept parts the globe, “Walk into a Storm” takes on a deeper resonance, as it imagines two struggling lovers facing a series of meteorological catastrophes together. Over acoustic guitars, piano, and a Hammond organ, Williams and Pipkin come together to sing, “Where we’re going, I don’t know/ Are we landing on our feet/ For better or worse there’s no escape/ Always you and always me.”
Altogether, Walk into a Storm is a deeply moving collection of crossover Americana. Rather than diverging from the band’s first two records, it extends the sonic and lyrical realms of The Lone Bellow and Then Came the Morning. With the hand of Dave Cobb, the music moves with greater purpose, providing the perfect backdrop for the Lone Bellow’s soaring vocals and emotional sentiments.