It’s been four years since there was any new material from the Maine-bred, Texas-based Cleaves, but, marking his 25th year in the business, he returns in splendid form with Ghost On The Car Radio, an album that has brings a keen eye and an open heart to the changing times in small town America, and the world at large, with songs that speak of disillusion, solace and hope.
He kicks off in firmly McGuinn mode with the ringing guitar and tumbling chords of ‘Already Gone’, a song that balances the sense of things never achieved (“Through the years you grasp and you hold on to a little dream that won’t die only to watch it recede along with all the garbage gone out with the tide”) with the peace of acceptance (“May not have gotten all that I dreamed of, pretty sure I got what I deserved”) in which you “Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders, feel some kind of mercy in the wind.”
Riding a loping reggae beat range with a lonesome desert guitar solo (courtesy producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb) in hand, the moody ‘Drunken Barber’s Hand’, co-penned with Rod Picott, which offers an inspired image for the state of the global nation as he sings how “this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand”, its apocalyptic visions underscored in the lines “go ahead make your confession to a washed up whiskey priest. I’ll be puttin’ money down on the rough and slouching beast” with its reference to Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.
That sombre, crushed spirit extends into the numbed feelings of the hushed, whisperingly-sung ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ (“The more I see, the less I understand. The harder I work, the poorer I feel. The deeper the faith, the more I’m broken”), the singer’s hard won cynicism foreseeing the same future for the idealistic dreamers who “come around with your soft young skin. With no idea what you’re about to step in.”
Veined with nostalgia and bitterness, the decline of small town America and of the blue collar stiffs who scraped a living in them is a central element to the album, most particularly so in ‘Little Guys’ where the narrator recalls starting out pumping gasoline at his parent’s auto repair shop, able to repair a carburettor by the time he was 12, but how, following his dad’s death, the good old days of the successful family business gave way to decline with the advent and arrival of big business and chain stores in the name of progress and “the little guy shops don’ t stand a chance when the big guys start to play.”
He carries over the auto imagery into the lilting sway of ‘Primer Gray’, another Picott co-write which, featuring fiddle, again takes a nostalgic tack as the narrator tries to convince his teenage son that the restored 1947 Pontiac he inherited from his own father, who used to race it down the track, still has what it takes. On the surface it’s about how it’s what’s under the hood that counts, not the flash on the surface, but it’s not hard to see the deeper underlying socioeconomic metaphor.
Featuring upright bass, mandolin and resonator guitar, ‘Hickory’ is another slow dance tune about the past being swept away by progress as the singer recalls his grandfather’s mountaintop cabin and the local mining business, which have vanished, along with the trees, all remaining of them being the names of the streets.
The third of four Picott co-writes, ‘Take Home Pay’ has a rockier, twangier approach that, at times, melodically recalls Jackson Browne in a song about growing older and still trying to make enough to keep body and soul together , his wife leaving him because “in the end you can’t really blame her, we’re all scrappin’ for the do re me.”
Taking a stool at the local honky-tonk for a Johnny Cash chug, ‘The Old Guard’ is another song about looking back to better times when the going gets too hard, here in the snapshot of a bunch of guys down the tavern picking out old songs on the jukebox, the lyrics referencing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, ‘Crazy Arms’ and ‘Crying Time’, as “heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme.”
It’s not all so downcast, the jaunty Beatlesesque ‘So Good to Me’ speaking of resilience bolstered by a solid relationship (“Through thick and thin you stayed, all through my darkest days”), while, plucked out on electric guitar, the simple, romantic ‘To Be Held’ is about how, when things get rough, a simple embrace can mean more than silver and gold.
David Boyle on piano, that streak of positivity built on a solid foundation of love, even when dreams sputter out, continues through the up-tempo cascading chords of ‘ Still Be Mine’ (“Hold me closer ’cause I’m starting to slide. Could you bite my bottom lip and whisper something sweet/Always loved the way you looked when you lied . It’s all right, don’t you cry, you can still be mine”).
He returns to the automobile imagery for the album’s movingly resigned, accepting yet still dignified, mortality-themed closing track ‘Junkyard’, the final Picott co-write, where, having “swapped out my share of parts from fenders and alternators to shoulders, knees and hearts” the world weary narrator’s come to the realisation that “it’s time to throw in the towel. Some breakdowns you cannot mend. Like all that have come before us, we all must face the end”, taking that last, one way trip to “lay me down to rust.”
It may not get the mainstream attention it deserves, but in its poetic imagery, emotional journey and musical strength, this is unquestionably Cleaves’ masterpiece. Turn up the speakers and let it haunt you.
Artist’s website: www.slaidcleaves.com
‘Already Gone’ – live: