Album Review: Chuck Ragan – “Till Midnight”

The Master is at it again…

Okay, enough hyperbole. On Till Midnight, his fourth studio effort as a solo artist, Chuck Ragan opted to alter the formula that had placed him at the pinnacle of the ‘punk-front-man-turned-solo-folk-troubadour’ mountain, particularly after his stellar 2011 release, Covering Ground. Till Midnight finds Ragan accompanied by a full band for the first time since 2009’s Gold Country. With him as always are longtime collaborators (and Revival Tour-mates) Jon Gaunt (fiddle) and Joe Ginsburg (bass) as well as Lucero’s Todd Beene on pedal steel. Rounding out the sound emanating from this edition of the ‘Camaraderie’ lineup are Social Distortion’s (and Dave Hause’s) David Hidalgo Jr. (drums), Christopher Thorn (who not only produced the album but filled in on piano and various guitars as well) and multi-instrumental Wallflowers/Foo Fighters’ contributor Rami Jaffee. The result is unquestionably the most focused, hopeful, passionate…and, yes, the best…work of his life outside Hot Water Music.

Allow me to digress for a minute. It’s no secret that Dave Hause‘s last release, Devour, is held in pretty high regard around these parts. On that album, Hause spent a dozen tracks expertly crafting tales of the confusion, heartache and turmoil that can sometimes strike in your mid-thirties, and lamenting the sort of society and culture that would produce a thirty-five year-old hard-wired the way he is.

In many ways, Till Midnight is the anti-Devour. From the first counted-off notes of album-opener “Something May Catch Fire,” hope is the name of the game. The track’s Beatles-melody-meets-Springsteen-punch find Ragan and crew hitting on all cylinders early and often, extolling the virtues of enjoying and cherishing what we’ve got before we run out of time. (In fact, Till Midnight sounds not unlike the sort of album that Springsteen has been trying, unsuccessfully, to pull off for the better part of the last decade. But that’s a discussion for another time.) That theme is revisited on the next track, “Vagabond,” which finds Ragan striving to make up for time spent wandering directionless, noting that “there ain’t much time above ground.”

Ragan spends most of Till Midnight cherishing and appreciating the solace he finds in the positive relationships that seem to keep this nomad by fate pointed in the right direction. Despite having what can be described as a wandering soul, it seems that all roads lead back to the ones he loves, with Ragan’s relationship with his wife serving as the compass that guides the way. “Revved” has the rhythm of a train chugging down the tracks while Ragan wails “I’m here to be your man, all in and revved to drive you home.” The string-accompanied, alt-country ballad “Wake With You” is destined to serve as a first dance song at many a tattooed and flanneled punk rock wedding for years to come, as humble Ragan acknowledges his shortcomings, pledging “I’ll do my damnedest to make mistakes but once.”

“You And I Alone” has a bit of a sing-song feel particularly in the chorus, and paints a picture that when the world has blown up and gone to shit, all you need is love. “You and I alone walking to the sea/you and I alone is all I ever need/ You and I alone is all I ever dreamed and where I need to be.” Much like Joe Strummer, particularly in his later years, Ragan also seems cognizant of the fact that the world blowing up and going to shit is well within the realm of possibility if we don’t get our collective acts together, and soon. The album’s first single, “Non-Typical” yearns for a “world better than this,” while “Whistleblowers Song” plays as a sort of sequel to Covering Ground‘s hidden track, “Camaraderie of the Commons,” as Ragan “can’t wait for salvation,” wondering how much time we’ve got left “before we all free fall.”

The acoustic-driven “For All We Care” brings the album to an epic, anthemic close, albeit in meandering, slow-burn fashion. It’s the perfect, communal-led outro to a nearly flawless album that could easily go on for well longer than it does. It shows that, while love might be all we need, we can truly build something beautiful if we all pull in the same direction before it’s too late.

Till Midnight is due out March 25th.

4.5/5 Stars

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