Über-artist-producer strikes again in a personal slice of Americana that is his best so far – and that’s saying something.
Time: 12 Tracks / 57 minutes
Some albums are like hussies in bars, grabbing you with their bold hooks and demanding your attention. Others are shy, deep things that want to take you into a snug corner with a long drink and let you into their life story. They slowly reveal their loveliness and make you want to spend the rest of your life with them.
Peacock has produced both, but this is particularly shy-and-deep. When I first heard No Man’s Land via a stream, I felt disappointed that he had moved away from the rock feel of his rather splendid 1999 release Kingdom Come (his last album, excluding a couple of very different jazz releases). I switched off the stream and discarded the idea of covering the release.
However, I could not turn down the review CD when it came my way and halfway through the disc, I turned it off again. This time it was because I knew that this would be a richly rewarding album that would take time to get to know, and I wanted to wait to give it the attention it deserved. Almost every listen has brought out new pleasures or given me a deeper joy in hearing it.
Peacock won a Grammy for his production on The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow a few months back. That may have introduced him to many, but he had already been nurturing artists, commenting on the state of his industry and producing his own quality music for a couple of decades now.
With the discernment he shows in its production and mix, No Man’s Land is the sort of collection that you take with you to try out a new piece of hi-fi. Peacock’s musical judgement is simply immense.
In moving away from the rock and jazz formats that have characterised most of his career, he has embraced a broad Americana, rich in Southern warmth. There is a new extensive use of brass, fiddle and pedal steel, used so deftly that you know just why he was awarded the Grammy.
It kicks off with “Death Trap,” a song about speaking in anger, whose rising three-note riff is the backbone to an exuberant mix of brass, lap steel, slide and accordion – as well as a deep rumble that sounds like that the start of an earthquake. Peacock certainly uses the full dynamic range.
The title track has an autobiographical feel, as Peacock traces his grandparents’ roots in Louisiana. It’s gentle, with a natural chorus and the odd lyrical twist. “This is my story / My story is my glory; my shame, my comfort, my hurt / It’s all that I’ve got/ all that I’ve never had.” After four minutes, it bursts into party mode with some New Orleans piano and a mix of other regional sounds.
The whole disc is a masterfully-mixed collection that becomes a glorious whole. But you could say the same thing about his lyrics, which honestly embrace all of life, earthily and with a longing for an authentic experience of God. Whereas Kingdom Come was a project that spoke about God’s Kingdom from the king to his children, conveying Christian upside-down values with the depth of a conference speaker, No Man’s Land comes from the human side of the relationship and looks for the father in the messiness of human life.
On this album, words and music come together more naturally than ever before, with melodies that coax their way inside of your being and never more so than on a song that Peacock wrote for a film soundtrack, “Till My Body Comes Undone”. Sometimes, his words hit a soft spot in me and I relish someone else sharing the same purpose that I experience. It’s an unprecocious song that could have been plucked from Dylan’s back catalogue. He sings, “I’ve had my hand in everything and nothing at all / I’m running like a whirlwind, while waiting for the call / I’m tripping in the darkness, lit up like the sun / I’m falling for a vision till my body comes undone” – and then the final punch: “I’m swimming in the blessing, not waiting round to die.”
A song to his wife follows, apologizing for missing a train because he was drinking with a man from Texas “who had been all over the world and the world had not been kind to him.” This one is not as deep as its predecessor, but it is a perfect marriage of text and tune that you have to sing along with. It’s also as vividly depicted as a movie scene.
Still there’s more: “Ghost of the Kitty Cat” starts with guitar that could be the Doobie Brothers, but very soon turns into a finger-clicking blend of big band, Little Feat and songs from a host of Bublé-like crooners. It’s very light-hearted, as is “Let the Dog Back in the House,” a relationship song that also features pets. More seriously, he wrestles with letting faith have its way on “Kite in a Tree” (which has some Washburn-like banjo): the over-facing feast of lyrics climax with “If belief is only a construct, my own little thumb suck / Then I’m a kite in a tree, a kite in a tree.“
On and on go the special moments: “Voice of the Lord” parodies Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” while also echoing Psalm 23, for instance. His voice of scuffed velvet keeps on with more noteworthy songs.
It’s not just that there are no weak tracks here; some songs are so striking that you suddenly realise that they’ve outshone something that would stand out on a lesser project. Having waited thirteen years for this, I’m so glad it didn’t pass me by. Never mind Barton Hollow, give the man a Grammy for this!