Album review: The new Shovels & Rope is better than the last

NPR is streaming the new Shovels & Rope album, Swimmin’ Time, this week, and boys, let me just say:

Goddamn, son.

I’ve been a Shovels & Rope fan for a while, before I even knew who Shovels & Rope were and I was just enjoying Cary Anne Hearst’s sassy wailing on Hayes Carll’s track Another Like You. Who’s Gonna Raise These Babies, I think, is the modern-day Harper Valley P.T.A. or The Pill or (pick your powerful country music singer hallmark). I burned a hole through Birmingham. What I’m trying to say, guys, is that I really fugging love these guys.

I think this album does ‘em under the table. This is a better album than O’ Be Joyful, and O’ Be Joyful is a great album. A tambourine and a steady, urgent back-beat, like what we have come to expect and love from Shovels & Rope, underpins the whole album without ever seeming contrived or repetitive. You hear every song on here for the first time every time.

The whole thing has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that came creeping out of the cypress trees of South Carolina. You can feel the water oozing up out of the primordial muck. Think Breece Pancake meets True Detective’s old-time religion. The theme of water runs through the entire album—sometimes it’s the salvation, sometimes it’s the damnation, but always it’s inescapable. Make no mistake, this is a concept album: Fishermen make their livelihood on the water in Fish Assassin; the river can take you anywhere you want to go, but “don’t get caught in the mud when the tide gets low” in Stono River Blues. The title track is a warning, half Revelations, half diluvial: “There’s nothing to be done to turn the tide//The money in your eyes has left you blind//You’ll be the one drowning when it’s swimmin’ time.”

The album relies in equal parts on the two great hallmarks of Southern storytelling: atmospheric metaphor--and strong characterization. “Won’t you help me get through it?” begs the woman in After The Storm. In the third track, Evil, a kind of Dirty South-esque rocker, the character moans, “But every now and then I get evil//I’m ashamed in the shadow of the steeple//I’m a lunatic looking through a key hole//I hit my kids but I don’t mean to.” These are flawed but striving people.

And as befits an album full of good storytelling, there’s an arc here. Songs about sin shift mutably into songs about hope: Mary Ann & One-Eyed Dan is a love song, and Save The World is about the power of small acts of kindness.

The closing track, Thresher, tells the story of the worst submarine disaster in history: During deep-diving tests in the spring of 1963, approximately 220 miles off the coast of Boston, the U.S.S. Thresher sank, killing all 129 crew members. The narrative winds down the album, welcoming us into the “arms of the ocean floor,” plumbing the deepest parts of the metaphor -- because the Thresher “can’t take no more.” There’s a machine-like thrum in the background of the track and at the close, sonar pings that go on uncomfortably long -- seeking what? Hope? Salvation? But those pings are in vain, because the Thresher has sunk. We heard instead only the seeking and striving voices of barely-distinguishable and muted prayer.

The album is out next Tuesday (August 26). Pick up your copy.

If you want to check out a few great old Shovels & Rope tunes, here's a Spotify playlist