REVIEW: Will Hoge – ‘Anchors’

LifeInASong_UK

With ten previous albums under his belt, Americana singer-songwriter Will Hoge is right about at the height of his powers right now. A gravelly mix of Dylan (both Bob and Jacob), Springsteen and Mellencamp, Hoge’s previous album, ‘Small Town Dreams’ was commercial Americana at its nadir, authentic, grounded and yet so full of hooks & melodies that it was a travesty it didn’t propel him into the ‘big leagues’ or earn him the sort of chart traction that many other, undeserving mainstream artists seem to get.

‘Anchors’, however, is a different beast to ‘Small Town Dreams’ – if ‘SMT’ was his ‘quarterback moment’ than ‘Anchors’ sees him back in the library with the geeks, agonising over lost love and broken dreams. The title is an apt one – virtually every song sees Hoge exploring the emotional anchors, be they positive or negative ones, that ground people in the lives that they lead. In some respects, this is Hoge’s ‘midlife crisis’ album – rather than go out and buy a sports car or run a marathon he’s aired all his doubts and fears about age, marriage and identity in one brutal piece of work. Yes, there are moments of brevity on ‘Anchors’ but it’s tough going at times, although the old adage of ‘nothing good comes easy’ might be worth remembering once in a while!

Many of the songs on ‘Anchors’ deal with the weight and expectation of long term relationships. ‘This Grand Charade’, possibly the stand out track on the album, sees Hoge singing about the prison of marriage in such a heart-breaking, yet beautiful way, you almost want to reach into the song and hug the narrator. Tender vocals and gentle guitar give the song an ethereal feel as Hoge captures the destructive nature of marriage perfectly. “You put on your make up and don’t even look my way, pass by me in the hallway like a ghost that’s running away. You tell me we got dinner plans with friends at five, and ask if maybe we could just act happy tonight.”

‘Cold Night in Santa Fe’, a bluesy, piano driven ballad, follows the same pattern. “It ain’t knowing that it’s over, it’s the watching it slipping away,” Hoge sings as he yearns for a night long in the past when things were better. The song builds to a big crescendo at the end of the first chorus before the second verse begins quietly. Hoge’s vocals quiver with emotion all the way through this motown tinged ballad as he convinces you that it all could have been different but it won’t be. And therein is the anchor referred to in the title.

‘Through Missing You’, a simple, mid-tempo song with some haunting guitar hidden in its simple beats sees Hoge heartbroken again. ‘I can’t wait until I’m through, missing you, missing you,” he sings, doing the old switch-aroo with the title, taking you in a different place to where you thought you were going whilst ‘Angel’s Wings’, a song that sees him mimicking Springsteen’s delivery and intonation, displays an anchor at its most heaviest. “If I had an angel’s wings, would I even leave the ground, if I had a ladder up, would I climb and fall back down.” Self-limiting and defeated, not the usual tropes explored in Country music but how many people do you know who are like that? More than you’d care to admit I guess.

It’s the brutal honesty on display here that is perhaps Hoge’s biggest attraction. He’s holding a mirror up to all our fears and faults, the niggles and doubts that keep us awake at night and that feeling of being trapped in situations that we can’t escape from. ‘17’ explores what it was like to be that age, the freedom and the promise of what’s to come – a horn section makes the song feel a little like 90’s indie rockers Cake before the slide guitars bring it right back into Country territory whilst ‘The Reckoning’ sees Hoge asking, “What’s the point of holding on, to anything that might be gone too soon?”.

There are moments of positivity on ‘Anchors’. ‘Little Bit of Rust’, possibly the most radio friendly song on the album, sees Hoge comparing a relationship to a beat up, old Chevrolet. As he works on one, he realises you can work on the other too – and find the shine underneath both. Sheryl Crow adds superb backing vocals that intertwine with Hoge’s perfectly. There is one line in ‘…..Rust’ that encapsulates succinctly the difference between men and women. “You could talk a little less and I could listen a little more,” he sings as the couple begin to re-find each other as the song progresses.  Slide guitars and fiddle give this song a big, big sound and the shared vocals make ‘…..Rust’ a stand out track.

‘This Aint an Original Sin’ is the most up-tempo and raucous track on ‘Anchors’. More Springsteen or Tom Petty influences at play on this one as Hoge sings about using sex as a medicine or a band aid. “We’ve been doing it for years, so we might as well do it all again,” he sings just before the noisiest guitar solo on what is quite a quiet, restrained album.

Album closer, ‘Young as We Will Ever Be’ is similarly up-tempo and deliberately placed as the most positive song on ‘Anchors’ to finish what is an incredibly brutal and honest look at people’s motivations and feelings in a positive way. The naval gazing and self analysis is over by this point and Hoge has come out the other side. “Sweeter days ahead, I can taste it, taste it,” he sings, “Time is ticking, I don’t wanna waste it, waste it.” At this point Hoge is almost breaking the fourth wall, urging the listener to follow his example and cast off the anchors that self-limit and drag us down, to move forward and take control of our lives instead of repeating the same old destructive patterns.

The listener is definitely taken on an exhausting emotional journey listening to this album. You can’t help but be taken in by Hoge’s therapy and analysis as he holds up a mirror to our own failings. It isn’t an easy listen at times but there are enough brighter moments that provide a respite from the serious stuff to be able to enjoy the album as a piece of art and not just a musical hour on the therapists couch. ‘Anchors’ ultimately finishes on a very positive note, giving you the feeling that Hoge’s next album might be less intense now that he has worked through all the ‘heavy stuff’ that was weighing him down. Musically, the album is an incredibly proficient piece of work, no words are wasted, no chorus undersold. You can still sing along to each song, even if the song is breaking your heart with its raw honesty and tragic characters. Not the sort of album you’d want to put on at 6pm on a Friday night but then Will Hoge is not Florida Georgia Line, and thank god for that – music doesn’t have to always be a radio programmers dream – it can be challenging, it can be hard and it can have serrated edges but the rewards can be all the more greater for the listener too. Put the effort in and you’ll get the most out of it and that’s where you’ll be with ‘Anchors’ if you give it the time and attention it deserves.

James Daykin (@rockjames)

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