Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me isn’t Waylon Payne’s debut album, but it works as a rebirth for the talented songwriter. It also works to detail Payne’s story from the debut album that never took off – 2004’s The Drifter – to now, including being disowned by his aunt and uncle, experimenting with drugs and coming out as gay. And, while it’s been a long time coming, those familiar with recent works from Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Wade Bowen and Pam Tillis have already heard his songs. Now, it’s time for another songwriter to get his proper due.
Granted, there’s a danger in assuming that life always imitates the art, especially when there’s plenty examples of artists within independent country music who frame their downward spirals with a notable intention just to fit a possible thematic arc – swaggering bravado to ride it to the bottom, or acknowledging how it’s all some spiritual test being conducted to test someone’s love.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this album, then, is that it doesn’t carry that sort of framing. Any attempts at grandeur have long faded, the scope is noticeably smaller, and, with the instrumentation and production only rarely indulging in outright bombast, it serves to make these songs feel more grounded and human. And it’s never coming from someone on the cusp of disaster for the first time; most of these characters have just accepted their imminent ruin.
With that said, it’s not a hopeless listen either. Payne might be at his lowest point on “Shiver,” but the surprise comes in how he’s able to bounce back, almost caught surprised and self-aware of how much lower he could sink. Even then, he’d survive somehow. It’s what makes “Dangerous Criminal” so effective in its framing, told from the perspective of someone abandoned by everyone who ever cared about him, yet aware of the endless cycle of addiction and depression he finds himself in and understanding that change will have to start with him.
Of course, that also speaks to the album’s thematic arc and progression, where the production and instrumentation serve to emphasize the subtler mix dynamics, even when the content starts to run together. Now, from a basic standpoint, I love how varied, textured and warm it feels as a whole, emphasizing warm-picked acoustics, harmonica and subtle liquid touches of reverb and strings to let that despair have the atmosphere it needs to sink in. The closest comparison is a more ragged version of Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star. Again, though, the devil is in the details, like how opener “Sins of the Father” emphasizes that meaty, jangly groove to emphasize a hint of bravado and swagger as its character vows to never repeat the same mistakes his father made raising him … only for those mistakes to frame the remainder of the album and kick him back down to reality. Or how, early on, even though I prefer Lee Ann Womack’s take on “All The Trouble,” I still enjoy how Payne emphasizes the frantic paranoia that comes with a crumbling mental instability, both in the content and in the smoldering guitar tones, high-strung strings and gradual uptick in tension. I’m a sucker for any writer that can get philosophical with their framing, and the larger point of this album is how it’s not exclusively Payne’s story. Yes, something like “Shiver” is the sort of detail-filled masterpiece that anchors the record, but he’s more concerned with making sure others don’t stumble into the same traps he did on “Dead on a Wheel” – and making sure that those not directly affected reach out and care about someone who did.
This also brings me to my main criticism, though. For as adept as Payne is at sketching the scene around him, there’s times where it feels like his knack for grander stakes in the writing comes at the cost of a tighter focus, where the details don’t stand out as much. It hampers “Dead on a Wheel” a bit, where the bridge feels a bit too unfocused in its presentation and preachy in its actual content. But it’s more noticeable toward the end. Take “Back From The Grave,” for instance, where the redemption arc kicks in, but feels too on the nose in explaining the lessons learned, especially coming off “Born To Lose.” It feels like it’s missing that track to anchor the details in between of how he miraculously got to that point. And that’s how I’d describe the second half of the project in general, really, which feels a bit flightier and carefree than its incredible middle section, until “Old Blue-Eyes,” that is. Even then, I enjoy how “After the Storm” emphasizes that languid liquid guitar groove in detailing the gentleness that comes with finally finding some semblance of stability and sanity.
I’m less enthused by “Precious Thing,” which relies on platitude-filled writing to nail that final mark of levity and gets outdone by “Old Blue-Eyes,” where, even though Payne is “back from the grave,” he’s thinking of someone who both may have contributed to his initial downward spiral … yet may have also saved him by understanding him and offering love. Again, it all points back to basic empathy, and I like how Payne is more concerned with sifting through the wreckage and finding the good in it before moving on, rather than dwelling in it or carrying any bitterness or resentment, thus shattering that vicious cycle he found himself in earlier on the record. If anything, he only hopes his significant other found his own happiness on his own twisted journey. It’s a happy ending that doesn’t skirt around the harsher realities, and it cements Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me as one of 2020’s
only good best surprises. Welcome back, Payne.
Recommended tracks: “Shiver,” “Old Blue-Eyes,” “Dangerous Criminal”