For her debut album, War Surplus, Becky Warren crafted a fantastic collection of biting, haunted songs inspired by the true-life stories of veterans and the people who fight to love them. How to follow that up? The Nashville singer-songwriter (and part-time Jeopardy contestant) has doubled down on last year’s effort with Undesirable, songs detailing conversations she had with members of Nashville’s homeless community. The result is simply the best album of 2018.
The album leads with “We’re All We’ve Got”, a driving rocker featuring vocals from Indigo Girl Amy Ray (Warren has frequently opened for the band). [For our earlier review of Amy Ray’s new album, click one of these bolded words.] The neglected folk of a dying West Virginia coal town – “A pile of forgotten forget-me-nots” – struggle for survival and dignity. “Nobody Wants to Rock N Roll No More” recalls early Lucinda Williams and wonders why we lose our passion as we age – “We camped out for the record release/Head full of music and axle grease.” The world has changed, but so have we – we don’t pursue what we love anymore. “Sunshine State” drops the listener in the middle of a life – the narrator is chasing down an old acquaintance (Lover? Dealer? Probably both), and we only find out at the end that she’s done 20 years in prison for him.
The protagonists in Warren’s songs have the most modest of expectations. The romantic partner in “Carmen” wants nothing more for the two of them than “a little blue house/We’ll peel potatoes on a couch someone left on the curb.” More often than not, though, expectations go unmet. Whether it’s the left-behind lonely girl asking others to “Just pray that you’ll never be another half-hearted angel like me” or the lover in “You’re Always Drunk” kissing off her partner with “To you and your alter egos/Vaya con dios”, these characters seem to want to warn others of the mistakes they themselves have made.
The absolute stunner of the set, though, is “Dabbs Avenue”. Wandering down the titular Nashville street, the narrator ponders a lost life and love, settling for a new truth: “I’ve made peace with this life of mine/Where you never cross my mind/You just hang there all the time.” There’s no forgetting, merely accepting. Devastating stuff.
Also found here, though, is measured optimism. The album’s last song, “The Drake Motel,” has the narrator sleeping indoors, reading the Bible, avoiding the bottle and trying to put the past in its place. It’s not a win, exactly, but the song is still oddly triumphant. And, as the guitar solo fades out, you already find yourself anticipating Becky Warren’s next album.
The point of all of this – yes, the songs are ostensibly about the homeless. But we’ve all made these mistakes, at least some of them. If one were to listen to these songs with no background on the writing process, we’d all be able to see ourselves in them. We’re all a misstep or two away from being “undesirable.” There’s not a single preachy syllable on the record – it’s all about empathy and understanding, and it happens naturally. That’s why this conceit succeeds.
Undesirable is produced by Dan Knobler (Lake Street Dive, Rodney Crowell, Kelsey Waldon) at Goosehead Palace in Nashville. Knobler also plays guitar on the album, along with Jeremy Middleton (bass), Jason Burger (drums) and Jeff Malinowski (acoustic guitar). Phillip Sterk’s pedal steel also stands out on several tracks. Order your copy here: https://beckywarren.com/