Style: Acoustic folk, country, gospel, jazz; compare to Emmylou Harris, Joe Henry, Hem
Top tracks: "Undamned," "Rave On," "Infamous Love Song"
Singing about your marriage woes and eventual reconciliation is about as vulnerable as it gets—but that's just what Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, who have performed for 20-plus years as Over the Rhine, did on their 2005 album, Drunkard's Prayer. Still, I'd say The Long Surrender is the most intimately personal album this husband and wife have made yet.
The Surrender part of the title is apt, as they reached further out of their creative comfort zone than ever, enlisting ace producer Joe Henry to put these songs to tape. Henry favors an unobtrusive, organic process to making records, and here it results in OTR's best-sounding album ever. "Rave On," for example, was written as a rock song but is here performed as a folk song, finding its tension and momentum from a slow build of intricate sonic details—a finger-picked bass, a distant echo of strings. Henry enlists his son Levon to play sax on a couple of tracks, a small gospel choir to accompany "Only God Can Save Us Now," and even country singer Lucinda Williams for a duet vocal.
But it is foremost an album not only by but about Over the Rhine. Detweiler and Bergquist have been chasing the same muse for two decades now, and here they're still writing and singing about art and marriage—about partnerships both creative and romantic. These are songs about desperately broken people, with whispers of beauty and transcendence. They are songs about a grace that transforms.
Those strands run through the record, and manifest themselves most directly on the penultimate track, which bears this simple refrain: "All my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know." It's a little more complicated on the clever "Infamous Love Song," an abbreviated history of Over the Rhine where their "love song" survives even through tumult and troubles.
As is often the case with this band, they're at their most powerful when playing with the most simplicity. "Undamned" is among the simplest tunes they ever wrote—and among the most viscerally moving. "I've done a thousand things wrong," Bergquist sings, "But I'm not too far gone / To fall headlong into the arms that love me." Call it a love song, call it a prayer, call it a statement of faith. Doesn't matter. In any event, it's grace that gets the last word.
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