Ben de la Cour returns to the Shadow Land of his latest album with his dark new single and video for Swan Dive — showcasing today on Tinnitist.
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.
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, even spending eight months in Cuba training with members of the national team. 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 twenty one. 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.
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.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a Nashville record, but you would be wrong. Ben de la Cour, the drunk and unhinged miscreant, wrote a grant proposal in hopes of receiving funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. “I locked myself away and wrote this 50-page grant proposal without really sleeping. And then I went straight to rehab” he laughs. And it worked! He caught a break when Manitoba Film and Music ponied up to cover the recording costs. So Shadow Land, which drips with East Nashville vibe, was actually recorded in Winnipeg with producer Scott Nolan in the middle of a polar vortex. “Scott wrote Hayes Carll’s Bad Liver and a Broken Heart, which is basically a modern standard, and produced records by William Prince, Richard Inman, Adam Carroll and a bunch of other great artists. We bonded over Nick Cave and the fact that we’re both recovering metalheads.”
“I figured everyone comes to Nashville to make records,” Ben continues, “for better or worse I don’t get that excited about doing what everyone else seems to be doing. So I went up to Canada in the depths of winter to make a record with a bunch of people I’d never met in my life. I flew my brother Alex in to play drums — we haven’t made a record together since our hesher days. We recorded almost the whole thing live, vocals included. I wanted to have fun. In an evil way.”