Together Through the Dark
Candy House Media

Maine transplant Slaid Cleaves has always had a Texas-sized soft spot for a hard-luck lament. Sure, every now and then he’ll entertain a stray ray of cautious optimism, but by and large his stock and trade is the Beautiful Bummer. Burnished by that unmistakable fine-grained sandpaper voice and honeyed with invariably heart-tugging melodic hooks, his trademark blue-collar, broke-down blues go down disarmingly easy; but when he sings a line like “Everything you love will be taken away,” there’s rarely a glass-half-full chaser waiting in the next verse. The comfort he offers is commiseration, not pep talk. All of which is to say that if you come to the first Slaid Cleaves album mined from the thick of a worldwide pandemic — and a period of social, economic and political turmoil as ripe for songs about hard times as any era since the heyday of Woody Guthrie — expecting so much as a whiff of zip-a-dee-doo-da, well … then you just don’t know the guy.

Cleaves cuts right to the somber chase on Together Through the Dark, opening with a “none-more-black” forecast befitting the End Times: “Dark clouds gather on the western range / This time it feels like more than just another cold, hard rain.” That song (“Through the Dark”) is the first of five co-written with his longtime friend (and former teenage bandmate) Rod Picott, a fellow Mainer even less inclined than Cleaves to pull his Nebraska-worthy punches; two tracks later, they land another haymaker with the stoic fatalism of “Next Heartbreak” (“I count my blessings and I carry on / Until the next heartbreak”) — and there’s not much cheer under the proverbial tree in the deeply melancholic “At Christmastime,” either.

Unexpectedly bleakest of all though is “Double-Shift Tuesday,” a Terri Hendrix cowrite given a radically different treatment than the version Hendrix recorded herself a few years back. As capped here by Cleaves with a chilling refrain of “Someday everybody gonna know my name,” what was a hardscrabble and highly relatable vignette of living paycheck to paycheck (or payday loan) takes a sharp right turn into something sounding more like the manifesto of a ticking time bomb. Whether or not Cleaves actually intended to lead the listener that deep into the dark is debatable, but the menacing undertone is still a little jarring — even on an album that later finds him reflecting on the corruptive influence of “Nature’s Darker Laws” on “Better angels ever led astray” by demagogues.

Of course, chances are that song (cowritten with Karen Poston, whose luminous “Lydia” is still the most beautiful song Cleaves has ever sung) will jar some listeners, too, albeit for entirely different reasons. But the empathy at its core and expressed in Cleaves’ warm voice is sincere. He’s not judging or even shaking his head at the man seeking purpose, answers and brotherhood by joining a violent mob any more than he’s siding with him: he’s just trying to focus in on one face in that crowd, acknowledging that one man as a fellow human being, and trying to wrap his head around how that man got there in the first place. It’s as finely drawn a character study — one of the things Cleaves writes and/or sings better than just about anyone else in modern folk and Americana — as the one of the reformed brawler of “Puncher’s Chance,” the lonely widower of “Sparrow,” the “beaten down Dallas gal” who became the “Terlingua Chili Queen” and even the recidivist “good prisoner, bad citizen, terrible family man” “Arnold Nash,” whose “true story” rightly serves as the album’s centerpiece.

You may not necessarily relate to, agree with or even like all of these people, but you do come away from the album feeling like you know them a little better. It’s telling that in the first song, when Cleaves promises to “Take you by the hand / Together through the dark,” he never says anything about leading anyone out of the dark. He’s just letting us that know that we’re not alone.

Promo photo by Yvette Foster