Album: True Devotion
Release Date: Tuesday, February 23
Rating (Skip, Stream, or Buy): Buy
Download: "Red River"
Rocky Votolato has always been a plain-spoken and honest songwriter; he's not one to cloak sentiment in heavy-handed metaphor. "Love's a trainwreck/ you're a mistake," he sings on "Portland is Leaving," the second track on 2006's Makers. This emotional undercurrent--loss, followed by sadness and disappointment--runs through his songs. Both Makers and 2007's The Brag and Cuss are filled with images of whiskey and heartbreak, vices that Votolato cherishes for their destructive elements.
That is, until now. Votolato is still a confessional songwriter on True Devotion, but he's confessing to something different here: hope. Votolato, a longtime Seattle resident, stopped touring and writing after Brag and Cuss was released; the anxiety and depression he struggled with for years became overhwelming. During his time off--including nearly a year where he didn't leave his apartment--he wrote and self-recorded the songs that would become True Devotion.His heart seems mended now, but he's not lost his edge, and the emotion portrayed on True Devotion is the rawest and most brutal that Votolato has ever evoked. Whatever it took Votolato to get to this hopeful place, this album shows that the change wasn't easy, and it wasn't clean. There is a lifetime of hurt and regret poured into these songs, starting with the apologetic lyrics of the first track, "Lucky Clover Coin": "For the rest of my life, I'll put your broken pieces back together."
True Devotion is filled with these intimate moments: "That feeling you get/when the wind is blowing/like your whole life is starting over," he sings on "Red River." It's a lovely, gentle album, with twinges of lyrical melancholy backed by smart production. The crescendos--and they are used liberally here--convey Votolato's new sense of hope most effectively. "Instrument" builds progressively as the lyrics do, starting slow and steady, until the line, "I just want to come back home to you again," when the vocals and instrumentals starts to swell with pace and theme. Votolato's voice lifts in pitch as it is doubled with harmony; he strums his guitar with more force and purpose when he sings, "I just want to be free." This careful production might be the most impressive aspect of True Devotion: Votolato has taken care to match the meaning of his words to the tenor of the instrumentals.
The instrumentals mark another shift for Votolato. He's moved away from the Ryan Adams-styled, alt-country twang of The Brag and Cuss to quiet folk. "Don't Be Angry," arguably the best song on the album, sounds unlike anything Votolato has done before. Yes, it's still incredibly heartbreaking, just like all of his songs--"Who's gonna rescue me from myself if you leave?" he sings--but it's also a thought-out composition, much more than just a man and a guitar. With harmonizing vocals and a tambourine keeping the song's beat, it hits all the right notes and all the right emotional chords. The overwhelming presence on this song and the rest of True Devotion is Votolato's steady, simple voice. He sounds strangely calm. There's no near-screaming, no vocals pushed close to the point of breaking like on the title track from Makers.
Any maybe this is the big difference between True Devotion and Votolato's earlier albums. While the songwriter is clearly a solitary man, working through his own thoughts, he doesn't sound lonely anymore. He doesn't wish for darkness--if anything, True Devotion is remarkably light, airy, and inspiring. It's emotionally heavy, but there's a sense of a freedom here. Votolato has finally laid his heavy burdens to rest and created his best album yet.