Dragons, the tenth album by the Memphis-born, Nashville-based Holcomb finds him in jubilant form, even if many of the songs touch on mortality, with his most collaborative work yet, six of the ten songs being co-writes and five featuring guest vocalists.
It kicks off on upbeat infectious manner with ‘Family’, clapping hands bolstering a Bo Diddley meets Paul Simon beat that celebrates, well, family, in a song about growing up seen through the lens of fatherhood with is essentially a series of single lines each preceded by the title chant.
A similar theme of community follows on with ‘End Of The World’, an uplifting anthemic ballad that might even have a hint of Take That to it, that calls for unity and partying your way into the darkness and living for the moment. Wife Ellie joins him for ‘But I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel’, a simple trot along love song with some tinkling piano in the background, then up comes The Lone Bellow for the part spoken swayalong title track, as, accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal drums, the chorus delivers an inspirational never give up message from his late grandfather left behind to “Take a few chances/A few worthy romances/Go swimming in the ocean on New Year’s Day/Don’t listen to the critics/Stand up and bear witness//Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way”.
Ellie returns for another chugging rhythm, dreamy, strings-enhanced love song, ‘See The World’, except this one is to his son as he sings “Someday you’ll fly away, find your own time and space… You’ll make your own noise, sing with your own voice”. Lori McKenna gets two co-writer credits, the jangling, steady drum beat mid-tempo ‘Make It Look So Easy’ about the moment when love strikes (“The very first time you put your hands in mine/I knew it would be impossible for me/To ever live without you”) and, also on vocals, the rolling country calypso groove ‘You Want What You Can’t Have’ which, Nathan Dugger on lap steel, is basically one of those other man’s grass numbers about being happy with what you’ve got.
The last vocal collaboration comes courtesy of co-writer Natalie Hemby on the slow walk-paced ‘Maybe’ which addresses pretty much the same theme (“Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything/Maybe we’re lost in what we want. Not what we need”) about how expectations can become a burden rather than a goal.
The emotional heart of the album, though, is ‘You Never Leave My Heart’, a simple piano-accompanied reflectively semi-spoken memory of his brother, who died twenty years ago but about which it’s only now Holcomb’s found the words to put his feelings into song as it swells to a soaring finale.
It all ends with the pulsing notes of ‘Bittersweet’, co-writer Carson Cooley on keyboards and synth for a song that returns to thoughts of mortality as “every curtain falls eventually”, but reminding that it’s what you do on the stage before then that matters, and to embrace life and “Play it like a board game, sing it like a hymn”. There may be dragons, but as long as there’s artists like Holcomb, there’ll always be a St George too.
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Artist’s website: www.drewholcomb.com
‘End Of The World’ – official video: