Good songwriters know good songwriters. John Prine, upon hearing Arlo McKinley’s “Bag of Pills” for the first time, remarked, “That’s a good song” (Mr. Prine was not one to waste words). McKinley signed with Prine’s Oh Boy label this past March, and his solo debut is the first release following Mr. Prine’s passing. Even as that’s a sad coincidence, Die Midwestern continues a legacy of great songwriting.
I was familiar with some of McKinley’s work, and what I’d heard was sad. Like, seeing-your-ex-leave-a-bar-with-a-ballplayer-from-your-least-favorite-team sad. So when I saw that “Bag of Pills” was included on this record, I thought, “Surely, that must be the saddest song on the album.” Nope. The record leads with “We Were Alright,” which begins as an acoustic road song full of warm, sanguine images – “I said tell me where you’re wanting to be and that’s where we’re gonna go/If it takes my life.” As the music builds, though, the picture comes fully into focus, and the gut punch is delivered. I don’t wish to spoil the excellent storytelling found in this song – suffice to say, it’s crushing.
The title track reflects the mixed feeling many of us hold toward our hometowns. With a bit of a Western swing feel and punctuated by fiddle work from Memphis Symphony violinist Jessie Munson (whose playing is a standout of the record). McKinley’s bane is Cincinnati, which once held hope for him and his career, but now feels simultaneously overblown and played out – “Another Cincinnati night/And I hate what that has become.” LIke so many others, the inertia he feels may be more powerful than the desire to get the hell out – “‘Cause if I don’t leave now then I’m never gonna leave Ohio.”
So, “Bag of Pills.” Like several of the songs on Die Midwestern, McKinley’s been living with it for a bit, but it receives a proper recording on this record. Even with a few subtle flourishes (insistent piano riffs, rolling guitar crescendos), the heart of the song remains one autobiographical detail from McKinley’s former life – “Got a bag of pills I’ve been dealing/So I can take you drinking” – and all of the wreckage that can result from that kind of decision. The addiction and death he saw around him brought about both a tragically beautiful song and a sad realization for the singer: things don’t always get better – “Life I don’t want it/If it’s so easy to die.”
Die Midwestern is mostly about McKinley reckoning with a chunk of his life he knows he could’ve lived better, but chose not to. “Gone for Good,” a mid-tempo number, finds him pining for a love he knows he did wrong – “I’m sorry that I stole from you so many of those years/I swear I’d give them back, girl, if I could.” And “Suicidal Saturday Night,” while not about the “final” act, certainly exemplifies a certain level of fatalism – “We’ve been dying since the day we were born.”
So what’s the value in these sad, sad songs, and why do so many of us love them so? Maybe it just helps to know that someone else out there is going through some kind of awful, yet has twisted that awful into art. And, when McKinley caps the album with “Walking Shoes,” where he finally finds the resolve to get up and go – “I could follow you down if you want me to/But we both know that would be a mess” – it feels hard-earned. And, in telling his story with a less-than-satisfying – but believable and empathetic – ending, Arlo McKinley has done Mr. Prine proud.
Die Midwestern was produced, mixed and engineered by Matt Ross-Spang and mastered by Pete Lyman. Musicians on the album include Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Dave Smith (bass), Rick Steff (keys), Will Sexton (electric guitar), Spang (acoustic guitars), Jessie Munson (fiddle) and Reba Russell (background vocals).
Go here to order Die Midwestern: https://store.johnprine.com/collections/arlo-mckinley
McKinley will be performing a digital album release show on Friday, August 14 – details here: https://store.johnprine.com/collections/arlo-mckinley/products/die-midwestern-digital-album-release-show-ticket