“Shadow Land” – Ben de la Cour

4 stars (out of 5)

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Authenticity’s something that’s often claimed but not always delivered. Not in this case; “Shadow Land” is a powerful and often disturbing collection of songs with a wide variety of themes. And the authenticity isn’t just in the lived experience of Ben de la Cour, although his life suffuses the songs. It’s also in the way the album was made; virtually all of it was recorded live. Brave, perhaps, but vibrant and raw when it’s done well. On “Shadow Land”, it’s done very, very well.

This isn’t a gentle, introspective album of reflective songs tinged with melancholy like Jackson Browne and James Taylor in the seventies. Their hell-raising generally didn’t make it directly into the songs (unless you count “Cocaine” on “Running on Empty”). With Ben de la Cour, it’s a different matter. It doesn’t matter how deep the barrel is, he’ll siphon out the most bitter dregs, then create potent songs from them. If you wanted a more current comparison, Ben has a lot in common with Michael McDermott both in the life lived and in the breadth of musical stylings they use to get the songs across.

“Shadow Land” moves effortlessly from the gentle triple-time pathos of another barely-mourned suicide in “Swan Dive” to the terrifying, hallucinatory “Harmless Indian Medicine Blues” sounding like a half-speed, minor key “Telegram Sam” played by Black Sabbath, with a side order of raw sax. And while we’re on the subject of terrifying, “Basin Lounge” is a full-on, full band romp through the story of a night in one of those bars that sensible people don’t visit, complete with cocaine references. It’s on the edge of falling apart at any time and conveys the stimulant headrush perfectly when the manic guitar solo kicks in.

The album isn’t just about the personal. There’s a smattering of murder ballads in there as well. The album opens with “God’s Only Son”, the tale of double-crossing bank robbers set to an Ennio Morricone-style arrangement, complete with whistling and mandolin while “Amazing Grace (Slight Return)” is a much more mellow take on a hushed-up murder in a small town. There’s also a takedown of corporate greed in the swamp-rock of “In God We Trust … All Others Pay Cash”, but the focus is mainly on the searingly honest depictions life in general and of the Janus faces of dependency and recovery in particular.

Two of the standouts in this vein are “The Last Chance Farm”, a gentle, bleak story of two characters meeting in rehab and the title song with its dystopic alienation and a perfect description of eternal damnation: ‘The Revolutionary Suicide Jazz Band plays all night long’. It certainly sounds a lot like Hell to me.

“Shadow Land” isn’t an easy listen; it’s not meant to be. It’s the product of a difficult life and Ben de la Cour doesn’t shy away from honest depiction of this life. The musical settings are perfect for the subject matter of the songs from the terrible clarity and Jack London references of “Valley of the Moon” to the raw rock and hedonism of “Basin Lounge”. You never know quite what’s coming next; it could be Townes Van Zandt, it could be Nick Cave. Whatever it is, it won’t be dull.

If you like your albums spiced with a murder ballad or two, a touch of the supernatural, terrifying stories of substance abuse, suicide, alienation, Armageddon and cross-dressing, then it’s your lucky day.

“Shadow Land” is released in the UK on Friday April 9th on Flour Sack Cape Records (FSCR-0010).

As a special treat, here’s the video clip for “Harmless Indian Medicine Blues”:

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