Four albums into a much-lauded solo career, Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan continues to churn out masterful Americana music and if you need further proof, give yourself an hour and spend some time with Till Midnight.
Though many might argue otherwise, an album opener should be the creme de la creme, after all you only get one first impression. Ragan is fully cognizant of just that and puts his best foot forward on the rousing singalong “Something May Catch Fire,” a heartland rocker culled straight from the Springsteen playbook. Jon Gaunt’s triumphant fiddling and a hip-shaking chorus cement the track as one of Ragan’s best to date and serve as a sparkling start to an album that is worth many repeated listens.
On the heels of “Something May Catch Fire” the album vaults forward with the self-affirming and organ-fueled “Vagabond,” a song that any traveling musician can find kinship with. Never once does he apologize for his lifestyle but never once does he feel perfectly at ease with it either. That dichotomy is what makes Ragan so powerful. He understand the human condition, the artistic condition and the vagaries of being a songwriter as well as just about anyone currently making music. And it shows in spades on Till Midnight. Even when he hones in on sincerity and empathy, Ragan is still a punk rock pioneer who has armfuls of ragged energy, a trait he wears with gusto on the freewheeling “Non-Typical” and the punchy ditty “Revved.” Arguably one of the album’s strongest contributions is “Bedroll Lullaby,” a violin-and-harmonica-drenched anthem about wanderlust and chasing dreams that probably needs to become every high schooler’s graduation song.
One of the many charms of his albums is his throaty delivery and never on Till Midnight is it more magnetic than on the barreling singalongs “Gave My Heart Out” and “You and I Alone.” Those soaring heights also serve as the album’s last true rockers. Softly and simply, the album settles into a valley of placidity, beginning with the near-perfect “Wake With You,” a pedal steel-driven ballad that would find many on Music Row blushing. A punk pioneer is nothing without a song about social causes and Ragan does his due diligence on the matter with the punchy “Whistleblower’s Song,” arguably the song’s weakest effort but probably its most lyrically inspired. Till Midnight concludes with the open-hearted and brilliant “For All We Care,” an ageless and deeply mature musing about self-defiance, courage and the ability to move forward despite the circumstances.
Till Midnight’s many moments of brilliance are far from surprising. At this point in his career, Ragan knows exactly what to do and how to achieve it. He is in every sense of the word, the seasoned professional. Easily his best album to date, Till Midnight is a beacon of a record that will be looked at fondly come year’s end.