A former punk, hardcore, and metalcore singer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, John Moreland made one of the greatest and most pervasively sad country records of the decade so far with 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat. “I’m so damn good at sorrow,” he sang in one of the LP’s key tracks, and he was right. Most of the songs were driven by little more than acoustic guitar and voice, and the lyrics were so heavy and despairing that the record was tough to listen to more than once in a multi-day span. If you were hurting for just about any reason, though, that album could be your best friend.
On first listen, however, Moreland’s sixth LP—called Big Bad Luv—sounds like a distinct departure from its predecessor. Most of the songs on High on Tulsa Heat made me want to cry. A good percentage of Big Bad Luv makes me want to dance. This record is markedly brighter—both in lyrical tone and sound—than Moreland’s last release. Opening track “Sallisaw Blue” crackles out of the gate with an infectious acoustic guitar riff, a blistering harmonica, and a (literally) hand-clapping rhythm. It sounds more like Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan that it does like Moreland’s last few records. The chorus serves as a fitting mission statement for the record’s brighter tone: “God bless these blues, let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered/I need you, come on burn right through/Honey, show me I’m not shattered.” After a record full of songs about being broken, it makes for an empowering mission statement to hear Moreland singing about not being broken.
That’s not to say Big Bad Luv is all big, bluesy, and uptempo. Moreland is a melancholy songwriter, and there is still plenty of melancholy to be found in these 11 songs. The second track, “Old Wounds,” feels more like the Moreland we know and love. “If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song,” he proclaims in the chorus. Bleeding on tape is what Moreland does so well, and Big Bad Luv, despite its raucous beginnings, serves up its fair share of sad songs. Album highlight “Lies I Chose to Believe” features a driving, muted drumbeat and a sparse palette of acoustic guitar and piano, set against brutal lines like “Good luck finding your peace of mind/Being born into these brutal times/These days I don’t pray when I close my eyes/I just bite my tongue a bit harder.”
“No Glory in Regret” hits even harder. A solo acoustic number that sounds like it would have been right at home on High on Tulsa Heat, “No Glory in Regret” is a thoughtful song about being haunted by the past—specifically by the ghosts of lost loved ones and friends who fell out of touch. “I’ve been pouring whiskey in the wind/Burning pictures of my best friends/Until the ashes cover me like rain,” Moreland sings early on in the track, before making an observation about the slow decay of time that will break your heart: “And you meant something to me then/And you mean something to me now/But some things aren’t meant to stay the same.” Not all friendships are built to last forever, and regretting those broken bonds is tantamount to wishing you could rewrite your story, change who you are, and give back the things you wanted. Realizing you couldn’t have kept someone in your life even if you wanted to is a tough pill to swallow, and Moreland knows it: “Don’t it feel like the truth/Comes at the price of your youth?/When the hell you’ve paid ain’t quite enough?”
These songs are heavy, filled with dense lyrical poetry that different listeners will likely interpret in their own ways, depending on their personal experiences. But where Tulsa Heat basked in the sadness, the songs on Big Bad Luv see Moreland finding contentment amidst the heartbreak and hurt. Since he made his last record, Moreland has gotten married, scored a record deal, and started building a strong, passionate fan following. He’s been fortunate, and those factors figure into his songwriting, adding color and hope to his melancholy songs. “I found me a reason to be a man/Out on the shoulder with an outstretched hand/Just a little solid ground to stand/Is all I ever needed,” he sings late in “Lies I Chose to Believe,” before acknowledging “Love ain’t a sickness, though I once thought it was.” “No Glory in Regret” finds a similar silver lining. “I was standing on a dead-end drive/With my pride thumbing for a ride/And somehow I ended up next to you.” He can’t regret the events and choices of his past, because they led him to the good things that populate his present.
Music fans tend to have a problem when famously sad artists stop writing poignantly depressing songs. Just look at the way Ben Gibbard’s stock has plummeted with most listeners since 2003. Moreland’s music was easy to love on High on Tulsa Heat, because relating to it was straightforward. If you were sad, there weren’t many better songs to put on than “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” “Cherokee,” or “You Don’t Care Enough for Me Enough to Cry.” Big Bad Luv is more complex and nuanced in its emotions, and those complexities make it a less immediate album than its predecessor. But these songs are rich, layered, and beautiful—from the foot-tapping full-band numbers like “Ain’t We Gold” and “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” to the confessional ballads like “Latchkey Kid” that Moreland does so well. Put it on for your next road trip and let Moreland’s wisdom drown out the hum of the wheels on the highway. Trust me: it’ll hit you hard.