A Friend from Out of Town
Ellipses Records

Beaver Nelson albums don’t come around near as often as they used to, back when for the better part of a decade after his 1998 debut, The Last Hurrah, you could count on a new one every year or two. But when a new Beaver album does show up out of the blue these days, it only takes a track or two to reassert his standing as one of the most maddeningly gifted original voices on the Austin music scene of the last 30 years. Duly respected by peers and discerning Americana fans but always more of a fringe dweller than part of the in-crowd, he’s an enigmatic misfit who can weave ache, beauty, wit and zen profundity into a song as artfully as anyone this side of Townes Van Zandt — and often as not with the careening, look-ma-no-hands abandon of the Replacements at their sloppy best.

But he only makes it look easy. Focus in closer, and you can tell just how much Beaver sweats every word in every song he writes — and as his first album in seven years, A Friend from Out of Town, makes clear, all that sweating (and pretending not to sweat) can really take a toll.

You can hear it straight away in the opening title track. “Sorry to call so late,” he offers at the start, a sheepish apology as endearing as the mangy rat dog (with cowboy hat and scuffed-up suitcase) staring up at you from the album’s cover. He chases that with a suggestion to catch up for some “laughing till the center’s split,” because hey, “What’s better than the sound of a friend from out of town?” But the minor-key undertow gives his weariness away even before he drops the mask in the second verse and begins singing the quiet part out loud: The “sound” that friend carries with him from town to town can also be heavy as hell, and it comes with ghosts.

None of this is necessarily new territory for Nelson. Even some of his lightest, catchiest songs have been touched with a hint of existential fret, and for every buoyant “Exciting Opportunity” on one of his records, there’s always an “If You Name a Thing It Dies” to even the scales.

But the balance this time around on his ninth album feels a little more tilted than usual on the side of gravity: “Symmetry’s for the stars, lop-sided is what you are,” he observes early on. “A grimace beneath a smirk, a body of work.” It’s not a condemnation so much as a matter-of-fact self-appraisal, but the unflinching gut-check continues with songs like “Nothing Left to Pound,” “Just Do It Already” and “When They Threw You Away,” which all seem to grapple with the Sisyphean struggle of just doing the work it takes to carry on, to hold fast to a sense of purpose when disillusionment or weariness pushes back.

But, leave it to Beaver (yeah, sorry) to give as good as he gets. Resourceful scrapper that he is, at no point does he succumb wholly to despair or go so far down the rabbit hole here as to lose all sense of the light.

Sometimes that light crashes through the dark with a clattering, garage band racket (“Competence is Kindness”); other times it’s refracted and wry (“If I tell you that I’m having a hard time, you could make it worse,” he sings in “Contemplations on the End of Ropes”). And in the end, it’s just beauty beyond words, literally. The lyrics of the last song, “Singing Bowl,” are all by poet Malcolm Guite, and every line scans like a cleansing benediction: “Start with the very breath you breathe in now / This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood / Accept it all and let it be for good.”

That every word rings true to Beaver’s own voice and sensibilities makes it the perfect capstone, but it’s the 11-minute song’s long, long instrumental coda — replete with harp, brass, and string section — that ultimately lifts the whole album above the clouds. More than just the most transcendent moment on this or any other Beaver Nelson record to date, it just might be the most beautiful eight minutes in Texas music this year.

Promo photo courtesy artist