“October surprise” is a term we hear every four years, usually referring to a bombshell revelation during the waning days of a presidential campaign. This October, though, we have a much more pleasant October surprise – a new album from Becky Warren! In the two years since releasing my favorite album of 2018, Undesirable (also released in October), we hadn’t heard much from Ms. Warren, outside of a few sporadic tour appearances with the Indigo Girls. Her new record, The Sick Season, explains the reason for her absence – a crippling bout of depression.
Warren has experienced great critical success with her solo concept albums – Undesirable is a collection of songs based on the experiences of Nashville’s homeless population, and War Surplus (released in October 2016) is a look at the damage suffered by Iraq war vets, told through the lens of Warren’s marriage to one. On The Sick Season, though, Warren gets intensely personal and raw in her unsparing look at herself. “Appointment with the Blues” leads off the record and lets us know what we’re in for. The track has a spare, Western feel, and Warren’s rough-edged voice recalls Lucinda Williams as she relates a roadtrip with inky-black intentions – “The radio signal’s starting to fade/So it’s just me and the road and some bad mistakes.” She mentions “a .22 in the backseat with the booze,” and it’s not the only gun reference on the album – one senses that the weapon isn’t for personal protection. The extra dose of guitars (from producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin and Della Mae’s Avril Smith) add edginess to the serrated lyrics. All told, it’s the darkest song Warren has put out, and it’s one of the best lead tracks I’ve heard in quite a while.
Warren calls her music “genuine American rock ‘n’ roll,” and she’s right – it’s fast and unfussy (the album clocks in at well under 40 minutes, and not a word or note is wasted). Truthfully, there’s a literate punk ethos to much of The Sick Season. In the slithering, bass-driven “Favorite Bad Penny,” Warren details just how she went about scorching her own Earth – “I’ve got uranium 235 in my engine/Never met a soul that couldn’t use unhingin’.” And in the rocker “Good Luck (You’re Gonna Need It),” She describes herself as a “tornado…rolling over houses of people I love sleeping unaware.”
On a casual listen, a lot of it can sound caustic, but it’s not that simple for Warren. She’s described a “dark period” in which she rarely left her house for 16 months, essentially preventing her from capitalizing on the success of Undesirable (and, in our non-pandemic musical climate, if you ain’t tourin’, you ain’t earnin’). “Tired of Sick,” one of the slower tunes on the record, explains Warren’s absolute exhaustion and has her wishing for simpler times – “Remember when I was a girl, all cinnamon and horses of plastic?” – while begging for relief she’s not sure exists. She honestly assesses all of the damage she’s done – all of the damage she didn’t WANT to do – in “Tommy,” about the guy who got left behind in all the sick. And “Dickerson Pike,” a straight-up rocker that’s provided texture by Hamlin’s organ part, relates the kind of evening where you really, really WANT to be out and in the company of friends, but you just…can’t – “I take my head back to the house and the bones back to my sofa.” It’s loneliness as its worst, and it’s heartbreaking. Warren has said that she’s better now – that she’s found the right combination of pills that taste “like glue and desperation.” Let’s hope so – these songs can help other folks to understand that they’re not alone, and a good night out at the rock show might just be a small part of the healing.
The Sick Season was produced by Jordan Brooke Hamlin, mixed by Sean O’Brien and mastered by Philip Shaw Bova. All songs were written by Becky Warren. Warren’s band is Avril Smith (guitars), Jeremy Middleton (bass, backing vocals) and Megan Jane (drums). Additional musicians include Hamlin (guitars, organ, horns, keys, accordion), Tiffany Minton (drums) and Emily Saliers, Kira Small and Ben de la Cour (backing vocals).
You can order The Sick Season here: https://beckywarren.bandcamp.com/merch
Get info for Becky’s online album release show, scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Oct. 24, here: https://www.facebook.com/events/411089270287511
Warren has offered links to mental health resources in her liner notes:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7