John Moreland Brings His Quiet Devastation to Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall
There’s a stark brutality that borders on masochism on John Moreland’s new album, High on Tulsa Heat. The first two words on the record? “Hang me.” Sample some other opening lines: “Well these angels in my ear drums, they can’t tell bad from good,” or, “My baby is a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky.”
That’s just how the tracks start; as they progress, this dismal state of mind generally intensifies—“I could bury all the memories, I could patch up all the holes / but I’d still feel your fingers on my soul.” On the outside, these songs are pretty and inviting, building off simple acoustic skeletons, cleanly-picked and closely-mic’d. But at their core, they are hard and unforgiving, gnarled and fatigued.
There’s precedent for this combination of pretty guitars and grim sentiment. At times, Moreland evokes the Tallest Man on Earth, but that’s ultimately feel-good music. There are elements of stripped-down Springsteen here too, but Moreland doesn’t have that legendary Springsteenian pluck. This music really belongs with country, the most heartrending of genres.
The devastation hasn't prevented Moreland from earning notice though. “Gospel,” a pretty number from his last album, In The Throes, made its way into the show Sons of Anarchy. And High on Tulsa Heat, quietly difficult to ignore, picked up press from several outlets that hadn’t covered the singer in the past. (This is his third solo album.)
During a sold-out show this past week at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, Moreland maintained a remarkable consistency. On Tulsa Heat, the singer sometimes worked with a simple band to add some flesh to the thin but sturdy acoustic outlines. At Rockwood, he played alone, seated and acoustic.
This can make shows formulaic—a performer has to hold all the attention alone, and without the benefit of much movement—but it also ensures some continuity. This suits Moreland. His set seemed like one long song, soft and tragic and hard to look away from, due to his focused writing. In The Throes tracks blended easily with the new tunes; if anything, the old ones were even bleaker. In “Your Spell,” Moreland sings “Well you know I used to love you, but now I don’t think I can / And it ain’t you, it’s just that feeling’s more than I can stand.” And “Break My Heart Sweetly” makes things simple: “I worshiped at the altar of losing everything.”
This feeling extended to Moreland’s rapport with the crowd as well. “I am told this one is a single,” he said, passive and totally detached, before playing “Heart's Too Heavy.” “Cherokee” also came with a caveat: “Just put out a video for this one that I had nothing to do with.” He noted that some people classified “American Flags and Black and White” as a protest song, but he demurred, saying he didn’t think he could write such a thing.
Protest requires defiance—for that, go listen to Springsteen.