You know what’s really satisfying? When a young band that you’ve been crowing about for years hits its stride and releases an absolute masterpiece of an album — THAT’s what.
Denver’s hard-rocking roots/punk/Americana outfit The Yawpers released just such an album on April 19th, and I am SO digging it. It’s the album I was hoping they’d eventually make: one that foregrounds and consolidates all their strengths, while at the same time adding some intriguing new elements.
Human Question strikes paydirt — or perhaps rather, roots rockabilly gold — on all those fronts. It really doesn’t matter what label you throw at it,1 : this is just a fine, invigorating, fully satisfying album by one of the most promising bands that’s come around in a long time.
What makes Human Question so great? Though The Yawpers’ sonic approach hasn’t changed radically, they’ve added some new textures and wrinkles that deepen and fill out their sound. I’m always put in mind by The Yawpers’ tunes of the Pixies’ compositional approach — as captured in the title of their fascinating reunion tour documentary, “Loud Quiet Loud” — which was later copied by Nirvana and a whole host of indie and grunge bands. Like those earlier bands, The Yawpers are masters of the startling, let’s-turn-this- thing-on-a-dime dynamic shift. It lends their songs a dangerous, unpredictable edge that adds to the band’s thrilling intensity.
And yet: Cook doesn’t let out one of his trademark bloodcurdling screams on this album for 17:31 minutes. (Such admirable restraint!) His first, fully articulated yawp — not counting a few moans and modest hollers sprinkled into the prior songs — doesn’t arrive until 2:56 minutes into the poundingly cathartic “Earn Your Heaven” — shortly after he comedically announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, I wanna welcome to the crucifix, Mr. Harry Connick Jr.” (!!!).
Cook’s yawps seem less “barbaric” than primally purgative (think scream therapy or a painful exorcism) on Human Question, however. Or perhaps that’s what those bloodcurdling screams were always aimed it? It’s possible that Human Question’s unflinching focus on mortality and loss just highlights that intent more effectively.
Supporting the primal quality of Nate’s emotively deck-clearing vocals are guitarist Jesse Parmet’s slide and lead guitar contributions, which dance, dazzle and weave in and out of the mix in intense yet consistently tactful ways. New drummer Alex Koshak’s playing is steady and unobtrusive for the most part, though he provides some primitive tom-tom accents on “Dancing on My Knees” and absolutely explodes on the rootsy “Earn Your Heaven” and the hard-rocking “Forgiveness Through Pain.”
One sonic element introduced on this album that I hadn’t noticed before in The Yawpers’ catalogue is the layered backing vocals on “Reason to Believe.” But oh, that raw guitar solo by Parmet! We’ve certainly heard that before, but the sonic richness of Human Question makes its rawness stand out all the more.
And then there are the contributions of engineer/mixer Alex Hall, including some tasty Wurlitzer on “Earn Your Heaven,” piano on “Carry Me,” and even a bit of vibraphone on “Can’t Wait” and “Where The Winters End.” The keyboard touches add tasteful new textures and moods to the songs just where they’re needed.
This album sounds WAY bigger than Capon Crusade (The Yawpers’ debut) or American Man (their standout 2015 release), whose sound was pretty huge to begin with. Human Question takes the band’s sense of intensity and urgency to a whole other level, however — and appropriately, given the album’s big ambitions.
It also sounds refreshingly organic and immediate, unlike their previous release, the meticulously plotted concept album A Boy in A Well. According to their label, The Yawpers set out to create “a contrasting immediacy” on the new album and accordingly took a more basic, live approach to the recording process: The album was written, rehearsed and recorded over a two-month period with Reliable Recordings’ Alex Hall (Cactus Blossoms, JD McPherson) at Chicago’s renowned Electrical Audio. The band tracked live in one room, feeding off the collective energy and adding few overdubs. Through the new approach, 10 songs connect with an organically linked attitude and style.
Underpinning it all, however, is frontman/lyricist/guitarist Nate Cook’s focused and thematically cohesive songwriting. Cook’s lyrics have always been uniquely literate, fearless and impassioned, but they take a huge leap forward on this LP in terms of both their poetic suggestiveness and universality. “Child of Mercy,” for example, opens the album with a blistering, full-frontal guitar attack, but at its core is an impassioned plea for salvation from loss and brokenness:
Little child of mercy
I’m living in a quiet room
Blind to every reminder that everything goes too soon
Please wake me up when the night is over
When it’s safe to come outside
The protagonist’s despair seems raw, genuine and not at all hyperbolic, as Cook’s lyrics perfectly evoke the emptiness of abandonment:
All the shades are drawn
Wires on the walls
All the furniture’s gone
Please, give me something that I can believe in
Something that takes it away
A lesser writer would hint at or inch toward a hopeful ending, but Cook avoids that tempting deus ex machina approach, ending the tune on an even more bereft note:
Little child of mercy
I guess maybe the angels are deaf
To the wants and needs of the weary
To the chronically bereft
I’m lying down in my broken home
Like a child again
The album’s centerpiece, “Carry Me,” is a similarly mournful, loss-driven tune, though it doesn’t stop at the simple expression of despair. The song’s insistent pleading — “Please, I need my lover’s hands / To dance on my skin / To harvest my garden / Won’t you let me suffer your touch?” — grows and expands until Cook commences screeching and the dark wail of an saxophone unexpectedly breaks in. In contrast to the opening track, “Carry Me” does in fact arrive at a kind of consoling closure, though its admittedly being based on a lie undercuts that consolation:
Won’t you take me into your arms, if only for a moment
And carry me
Lie to me as a little mercy
Lie to me, it’s all I need
Tell me you love me, in this moment
And you’ll carry me through
It’s an audacious, rug-pulling ending that underscores the song’s painfully desperate yet fully self-aware expression of emotional neediness.
Both the title track and “Man as Ghost” address loss as well, taking similar though crucially different trajectories. The former projects a weighty, funereal tone in its questioning of the ultimate meaning of human existence:
Can there ever be an answer?
Such an elegant fear
Each conviction feels so fluid
Every effigy fades
No priests, no guides, no fathers
Where the body is laid
What is this human question?
The song’s restrained, melancholic feel is accentuated by Parmet’s droning slide guitar and the high-in-the-mix (and thus exotic sounding, in this context) shakers, until Hall’s piano and vibraphone suddenly break in at the 2:38 mark. The last verse ponders whether mourning rituals can ever be truly effectual, given the undeniable fact of loss’s permanence:
Traveling up the mountain
Past the Catherine Wheel
The only children see where
The body’s revealed
There is no hesitation
How do we mourn, how do we mourn?
The song’s final lines present a conundrum, rather than providing resolution or redemption:
As the silence fills our heads
There’s so much time now to forget
Sound that comforts and destroys what we needed from the noise
“Man As Ghost” provides a short but effective coda to “Human Question” (the song’s) ruminations. Again, the lyrics are at once searching and definitive in their assertion of irredeemable loss and homelessness:
I’m a ghost
This is a vicious world of poor design
I’ll build one of my own
I’ll make Jerusalem, Arcadia, or Meropis
Because I have no home
As with the prior song, the final verse further complicates the mystery of (lost) consolation, “taking ownership” of the distance the protagonist has both crossed and created.
I’ve always been a visitor but you were such a quiet place to breathe I saw you as a vision, where the hungry go to feed
I’m a ghost, in a world of loss
In my memories you’re next to me
A limbless jury and my host
I’m finally taking ownership, I’m a better lover as a ghost
That such haunted, pensive songs as “Child of Mercy,” “Human Question,” “Man As Ghost” and “Carry On” could be interwoven with driving, intense rockers like “Dancing on My Knees,” “Earn Your Heaven” and “Forgiveness Through Pain,” with the tight weave of contrasting threads resulting in a seamless, unified tapestry, testifies both to The Yawpers’ growing virtuosity and their singularity of purpose on Human Question.
The album’s last three tunes trace a kind of arc that reflects just how far The Yawpers have come in their relatively brief career. ”Forgiveness Through Pain” is probably the most quintessentially Yawpers-ish song on the album. It has all of their hallmark stylistic elements: the pounding drums; the thrashing, dirty guitar tones; the spittle-flecked vocals and sudden, high-intensity breakdowns, all built on that grungey loud-quiet-loud template. You can almost see the veins bulging from Cook’s neck and face as sputters on in rapid-fire fashion about the Grim Reaper:
His prophecies all speak about you
From his dark bench in the yard
The leaves all fall around him, and he passes without a word
He’s a collector of all that you’ve lost
All the things you’ve left behind
All of the things that you thought that you’d see
But instead they just rendered you blind
Bring out your finest champagne
Nothing to lose or to contain
He’s not a friend, but he’s here until the end
And to teach you forgiveness through pain
“Can’t Wait,” on the other hand, is a horse of a completely different color. With its Tom Pettyish pop stylings, it’s the most radio-friendly song on the album as well its most hopeful-sounding — though (again) the lyrics belie that impression:
I’ve been looking for some comfort in this world that’s escaping me I’ve been riding these bannisters for weeks
I’ve been chasing you through the dirty sheets
I’ve been waiting for the lights to go out on me
Though its title and sunny, chimey guitars bear a family resemblance to The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” The Yawpers’ tune takes the title’s professed eagerness in a very different, quite possibly morbid direction at the end: “I’ve been waiting for the lights to go out on me… I can’t wait!”
At the resting point of this musical arc is “Where the Winters End,” a mellow song of exhortation a la Dylan’s “Forever Young” or Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”; taken with “Child of Mercy,” it effectively bookends the album with two tunes marked by prayerful supplication. The repeated incantation “May you… [fill in the blank]” functions at first exactly as it does on the Dylan tune:
May your seasons find their end
May your crowns change on your head
May you learn to walk with the dead,
And feel the living hand in kind
May your mouth find every word
May your ecstasies be heard
May you always continue to burn,
And to warm the ones you need
Naturally we’re guessing the song will continue this invocation of blessings, and for a while it caters to that expectation:
May my voice continue to rise
May my arrow find ever lie
May I never avert my eyes
And find comfort in the dark
Cook has no interest in following the formula by resolving things along pleasantly uplifting lines, however. Instead, he introduces a note of wariness that casts a shadow of doubt on the sincerity of the prior verses’ invocations:
Take me to the place where the winters stop Where I held your hand, and locked away love It’s wet and warm and hidden in the leaves
I know you wouldn’t want it left beneath
When we were young, it sheltered my belief
I know we only left it there for us
But we’re getting older… we’re getting older now
“But we’re getting older,” indeed. And perhaps stronger, and maybe even wiser, the ending — coupled with the bouncey melody and breezy arrangement — implies. But then again, perhaps not. It’s a brilliant, powerful closing to the album that resists buying into false promises of closure and consolation, while acknowledging nevertheless the all-too-human necessity of mourning one’s losses.
It’s also, and above all, clear confirmation that Nate Cook and company have come fully and decisively into their own.
Americana Highways’ interview with Nate Cook can be found at: Interview: Nate Cook of the Yawpers on New Release
Human Question is available on CD and vinyl from Bloodshot Records here: https://www.bloodshotrecords.com/album/human-question
Download links as well as tour dates and biographical info can be found at: http://www.theyawpers.com
1 Their label, Bloodshot Records, describes their sound as “a front-heavy, groovy, fire & brimstone punk-blues overlying a dynamic and metaphysical roots rock.” Uh-huh.