hy not us, then? Why isn't it us on stage, singing in front of thousands hanging on our every word, releasing albums to fawning critical acclaim? It can't just be a lack of talent, can it? We can write songs, and some of us do, no doubt comparably well, in certain cases, to the certified geniuses we admire. The same goes for ambition and inspiration—there are countless musicians out there who ply their difficult trades with dogged determination but never receive more than a lukewarm reception from critics or a faintly stirred ambivalance from fans.
So what can we tell ourselves to justify our starry-eyed shortcomings? Maybe we console ourselves with the thought that we're just too damned well-adjusted for rock 'n' roll idolatry. After all, doesn't it seem to take a special kind of tortured psyche and a tragically haunted soul to produce truly great works of pop music?
Rough-and-tumble country-rock queen Allison Moorer seems to corroborate this theory. Moorer was raised by her sister, after both witnessed their father shoot and kill their mother and then turn the gun on himself. Similar tragedies have scarred the lives of many other gifted artists, but the real kicker here is that Moorer's older sis, the incomparable Shelby Lynne, has also managed to channel that horror and heartbreak into beautiful, soul-wrenching song.
Certainly no one would ever want to endure the hardships Moorer and Lynne have experienced, but isn't there still an unsavory part of us that begrudges them their talents, that wishes we could turn our own pain into such stunning popcraft?
Of course, pain isn't a light switch, and listening to "Melancholy Polly", a track from Moorer's newest release, The Duel, is enough to convince even the most self-deluded soul-baring neophyte that hard-wrought genius is its own kind of hell. Rather than wrap herself up in the mystique of the antipathic artist, “Polly” admits she's trapped in a self-defeating cycle of suffering followed by songwriting purgation. Surrounded by an obliviously “drunken crowd” deaf to her real emotional torment, she realizes in the end that her life literally “only happens for a song to sing”.
“Melancholy Polly” is only one of the myth-punctuating tracks on The Duel, and it’s far from the bleakest. Meanwhile, characters drown in drink (“One On the House”) and fall under the spell of drugs (“When Will You Ever Come Down”), while the whores hustle (“Believe You Me”) and the hustlers whore (“Louise is in the Blue Moon”). For a closer, “Sing Me To Sleep” finds its narrator on her deathbed, begging for one last lullaby.
Heartbreaking stuff, but rhetorical rookie shit compared to the title track. The scene is the graveside of a recently departed lover, and Moorer throws down the gauntlet in the first two lines: “In this cemetary mist / stands a newborn atheist”. Struggling to come to grips with her anger and sadness, Moorer’s left-behind lover grasps at clunky metaphors to contain her feelings of heavenly betrayal. In the context of a battered soul and a disbelieving mind, however, lines like “flesh and blood’s a sissy fist / Death’s a gold glove pugilist” sound like the true inarticulate speech of the heart. Refusing to accept the tragedy of premature death as part of God’s plan, she bitterly concludes that “the king of kings has lost his crown”, a bravely unorthodox stance to take against the typically pious backdrop of country music.
In fact, you could alternately read The Duel as Moorer’s attempt to tear down, or at least demystify, the two pillars of the genre: God and Country. To the former end, “All Aboard” robustly condemns rally-around-the-flag syndrome with subversive Sleater-Kinney-isms like “watch your mouth and close your eyes” and the flag-baiting taunt “bandwagon rides for free”. The graveyard grieving of “The Duel” might have demanded quiet devastation, but Moorer comes out here with guns ablaze, letting freedom ring with a raggedly Youngian guitar workout that synthesizes all the spiteful recriminations of the lyrics. Lining them up and knocking them down, Moorer manages to kill all yr idols in one fell swoop, making The Duel not just a great record, but a much-needed dose of country-rock reality.