“I first heard the word of God when I was eight years old / He told me to take a carving knife and hold it to my brother’s throat.” So claims Ben de la Cour — with no small dose of pride, I might add — a few seconds into his fourth album Shadow Land. In my trade, that is what as known as a punchy lede. And it’s just the beginning of this deeply dark, deeply disturbing, deeply moving and deeply satisfying slab of roots-rock and Americana from one of the more terrifically and terrifyingly talented songwriters to come down the pike in way too many years. With a hardened heart, a troubled soul, a jaundiced eye, a razor wit and a voice like crushed gravel, de la Cour delivers desperate, richly detailed narratives of sin and salvation, crime and murder, drugs and booze, love and longing, and all the other good stuff that people life for and die over. Then he sets these mesmerizing tales against a musical backdrop that masterfully encompasses everything from spaghetti-western twang, barn-burning roots-rock and gnarly stomp-blues to graceful piano balladry and fingerpicked acoustic-guitar folk — all recorded in Winnipeg with producer Scott Nolan and a pickup band of local players, no less. When it’s all said and done, you’ve got an album that can hold its own next to the likes of Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits. That might not be the word of God, but it’s close enough for me. And for you.
THE PRESS RELEASE: “There are singer-songwriters, and there are troubadours. Singer-songwriters are sensitive, polished souls, sharing their journal entries with the world, whereas troubadours do their best just to stay out of jail. And in the wake of Ben de la Cour’s astonishing new record, Shadow Land, you can add his name to the top of the list of younger troubadours to whom this ever-so-occasionally poisoned chalice is being passed. Shadow Land shimmers — it’s both terrifying, soothing and suffused with honesty, craft, a rare soul-baring fearlessness and enough surprises to keep the listener guessing. It gets down and dirty with electric guitar but also features Ben’s diffident fingerpicking in quieter moments. Ultimately, it is a darkly beautiful meditation on what it means to be human. Ben’s voice renders emotion with authority as he recounts tales of suspicious characters; lost lovers, bank robbers, suicides, mental illness, ghoul-haunted pool halls and murders in front of ghoul-haunted pool halls. To quote a verse from the brilliant From Now On, he sings “it’s hard to hold a candle / in a wind so wild and strong.” That one line sums up the troubadour’s life about as well as anything ever said about it before. To say Ben de la Cour has lived an eventful life in the course of keeping that flame lit would be putting it mildly. As a young man, Ben was a successful amateur boxer in his weight class, even moving to Cuba to train. After playing New York City dives like CBGBs with his brother a decade before he could legally drink, he had already stuffed himself into a bottle of bourbon and pulled the cork in tight over his head by the time he was 21. He was a handful to say the least. There were arrests, homes in tough neighborhoods all over the world, countless false starts and battles with mental health and substance abuse. But seven years ago Ben finally found himself in East Nashville, and after a successful stint in a dual-diagnosis facility he’s racked up two years sober and made far and away the best of his four albums: Shadow Land.