Strings sticks to a sort of bluegrass that all but the most die-hard purists should appreciate.
Billy Strings has gotten better. That shouldn’t be a surprise: after all, he’s still in his mid-twenties, and being a prodigy means we expect more and more from him. Still, 2017’s Turmoil and Tinfoil showed off his technical proficiency as well as his willingness to experiment with both studio effects and song structure. Strings had a format: a form of bluegrass in love with its tradition but joyful in its detours. Strings has the same format now, but on new album Home he’s expanded everything he does, and while doing more doesn’t inherently make the music better, the ways in which Strings builds this second record makes it a new sort of accomplishment.
The title track provides the album’s outstanding achievement. Strings shapes the song carefully, building slowly to a peak in the center and slowly returning to the start, an impressionistic journey that follows his lyrical musings on what home is, along with why we leave and how we stay. The central argument comes not through the wintry lyrics but through the instrumental breakdown, centered on an electric guitar solo that has more to do with psych-rock than with bluegrass, fitting for the sometimes dreamy piece. As Strings returns to his opening lyrics, they take on a new color with the force of the solo behind them; the song moves from a meditative musing to an urgent worry amid confusion. The use of strings heightens the overall effects of the song and helps to leave the ending ambiguous.
As thoughtfully constructed as “Home” is, it’s just representative of the way Strings writes across the album. There’s little here that feels wandering or showy. Even the other plus-seven-minute track, “Away from the Mire,” moves with a steady sense of progress, utilizing surprising shifts in sound within linear motion. Strings has somewhere to be on each track, and takes just as much time as he needs to get there. When “Big Sandy” ends after 28 seconds, it’s because that’s all the coda the album needed, a fun little send-off for an occasionally heavy record.
The disc opens with some heaviness, the “Cold, cold ashes on the ground” of “Taking Water.” Strings reflects on imminent demise, finding little hope in hometown ruin, but persisting on guitar wizardry. If the album sets up desolation as a starting point, much of the rest of it serves as resistance. “Must Be Seven” immediately shifts. Where its predecessor stared at the leak in a boat, this track tells the story of people who “turned their lives around.” Molly Tuttle’s vocals add a familial richness to the number, a counterbalance to the considerations of “Home.”
That sort of balance turns to optimism by the end of the disc. “Guitar Peace” includes the return of the harmonium (an oddity of the previous record) as Strings move to the global east for a largely improvised piece. From there he goes to his most traditional number, the old-timey “Freedom,” a group vocal number that could have been written during the Great Depression. Strings might be going to all sorts of places in his writing, but he’s always thinking about where he comes from.
By adhering to the broad stylings of his roots, Strings sticks to a sort of bluegrass that all but the most die-hard purists should appreciate. By leaving home musically, he finds exciting new territory to explore. Fans and critics have focused on the ways that heavy metal has influenced his work, but there’s little of that sound captured on record (Strings talks about the energy rather than the sound of metal). What he does, instead of trying to shred on a V, is to take his broad listening and use it to expand the bluegrass that most excites him. In doing so, he happily opens space for wandering away without losing sight of the always-burning home fires.