I’ve been listening to anything Bobby Long has to offer since I picked up my copy of Dirty Pond Songs at his first show here in Nashville three years ago. Over the years, he has proven to be prolific and exceptionally profound, but his latest offering, The Backing Singer, goes above anything he’s ever done before. Because I added the EP to my iTunes immediately, I often cycled through tunes from previous albums and EPs while listening, and the differences between past records and his new EP are immediate, but not jarring.
The first thing I noticed the moment She Wears Green began is the gentle touch. Violin introduces the first strum of the guitar, both foreshadowing the subject matter beautifully. If we can expect anything from Bobby Long, it’s that he will cut cleanly with his lyrics, pain present but soothed by the warmth of his voice. The addition of the violin, contributed by Jack Dawson, is an inspired touch. It presents a whole new dimension of Long’s songwriting and calls to mind Irish folk music. His backing vocalists are a cushion, an accompaniment – never partners, merely support.
The partner is, in fact, the violin. The legato lines are often in contrast to the finger picking at which Long is so adept, but they are performed with a rasp that echoes the voice perfectly. Throughout the entire album, there is no better backing singer. On the title track, we see even more of the songwriting mastery. Opening gently in minor, there is a very melancholy feel, but it eventually opens up to the more hopeful major key. When he might have pushed too hard, Long instead remains tender, never overdoing the vocals. It seems a personal song for him, and he treats it as such.
I felt the highlight of the album was These Boats, at least musically. I could have listened to the introduction over and over and never tired of it. Again, it features the contrast between his skillful picking and the sweet melody from the violin, and already it’s a beautiful song. When he sings, there is more optimism in the lyrics, though it is wrapped in despair. The closing violin solo is some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard this year.
The River Is Long settles firmly back into Long’s usual genre, though fuller and more complex than I’ve heard before. This murder ballad quickly claims a spot in a very unique class, describing a death in his hometown, if stories are to be believed. There is a nice addition with the organ, cradling the voice and violin softly without overwhelming. He pushed some of the boundaries with this tune, never backing away from a more strident sound than any of the other songs, and it works well. The words evoke emotion, and the music drives it.
To close the record, Where You Lay is a poignant lullaby. Sung in Long’s aching tenor, it’s soft and sweet, raw and painful, and utterly beautiful. A fitting end to a brilliant, evocative, and soulful EP. If this is just a glimpse into the future of Bobby Long’s music, I’ll wait patiently for the rest.
Bobby Long is currently touring Europe, but he plans to return to the States for several east coast dates, starting with Joe’s Pub in New York City on November 8. You can catch him in Nashville on November 17 at 3rd and Lindsley, or check his website for other appearances.