BY JAKE HARRIS Wide Open Country
Perhaps the closest foundation for understanding Canadian country singer Corb Lund’s sensibilities is the Zac Brown Band. Not in terms of the type of music they make, but the attitude behind it.
The artists are the only two this year to release albums that display a wide range of genre variety: ZBB’s Jekyll + Hyde and Corb Lund’s Things That Can’t Be Undone.
Jekyll + Hyde runs the gamut: the album has EDM, reggae, grunge, rock, country, Sinatra-lite and even a Jason Isbell cover. Both ZBB and Lund (backed on Things, as always, by his “Hurtin’ Albertans“) are ultimately country, but also content to write their own songs and see whatever music comes out to accompany them.
Lund’s multiple-genre moment is on this month’s Things That Can’t Be Undone, released on New West Records and produced by Dave Cobb, who also produced efforts from Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson.
Things begins with the heavy, contemplative ballad “Weight of the Gun” which, while speaking serious lyrics, also has a melody that wouldn’t be out of place on a Motown record.
It’s followed by “Run This Town”, a painful song about love lost that moves like an upbeat 60s rock song.
Lund’s method of pairing music seemingly at odds with its lyrics is a trend that continues throughout the album, but the effect works because it comes across as well-trod territory for Lund and the Albertans. The band has never had what you might call a specific “sound” as much as they’ve had musical influences. Things is an example of form following function for every song, and unlike Jekyll, it’s because of the wry observations and deep storytelling present on this album.
Thematically, all the genre-bending on Things serves a greater purpose to the story of the album, which is all about decisions that you can’t go back from, like quitting your job, going back to Iraq, leaving a lover, killing a man; each of those decisions have different motives and different feelings behind them, so it’s only natural for the songs about them to move back and forth between musical styles. The Motown funk, the 60s psychedelic rock, the outlaw country vibe, they all add to what Lund is trying to say.
The most powerful moments occur on “Sadr City“, a war song about the first post-“Mission Accomplished” flare-up in Iraq, and “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Store Blues”, a pseudo-sequel to Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It”, written by Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours.
“Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Store Blues” teeters on the line between sarcasm and homage, as it imagines what would happen to the man from Paycheck’s workplace fantasy if he became a failed musician and had to get his job back. Lund again disappears into the musical stylings necessary for the song, using tones that evoke both Paycheck’s music and Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”.
At no point does any of this sound like a cash grab. Lund sounds like he knows what he’s going for the entire time, and isn’t doing it merely for radio play, which is what Jekyll seems to be going for. While technically proficient at playing grunge, EDM and reggae, ZBB is bereft of emotion in the songs on their album. The closest they come is on “Junkyard Dog and “Dress Blues”, the lone cover song. Where Jekyll is an exercise in technical versatility, Things is a masterclass in adapting to a genre to make it your own instead of merely imitating it.
Comparing the two artists may be like apples and oranges, though. One is Canadian and isn’t too well-known in America; the other is at the peak of popularity in the Nashville scene. But now that so many country artists are trying to revitalize their sound by aping other genres, it’s refreshing to hear someone do it right. It’s also safe to say Corb Lund’s album is better, simply because it feels more coherent and earnest. Maybe these Canadians are on to something.