As Bruce Springsteen sang decades back, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” That everything includes the fantastical ephemera we dub dreams—not the vivid night visions associated with sleep, but the lofty goals we imagine ourselves one day achieving, be they best-selling novelist, noted poet, chart-topping country singer or NFL quarterback. Except dreams don’t so much die as fade into the static of a distant radio station’s signal. They linger just out of earshot for the rest of our journey.
Quaalude Lullabies is a remarkably evocative album that spins stirring tales of addiction, fading dreams and loneliness, of life on the road and at home. The lyrics are as sharp as the musical accompaniment is sparse. The opening track, “The Devil, the Dealer, & Me,” explores how doubts fester and transform into figurative monsters that hide beneath our beds. Like the songs that follow, it’s littered with lines that should soon be the envy of every songwriter, including “a heart only breaks when you use it,” “a memory is worthless if you make it alone,” “some days are made to run out the clock,” and “what’s heaven when hell crashes through?”
It’s a dark and dour keynote address, to be sure, but a hypnotic one. It also sets the stage for what follows. “Fall Apart” finds Canterbury recounting life on the road and how “two-lane roads and cheap motels/sure beats the devil out of standing still,” while his cover of Will Kimbrough’s “Yellow Mama” has him singing from the perspective of a death-row inmate (“Yellow Mama,” for those unaware, was the nickname given to the electric chair used in Alabama from 1927 to 2002.) In “Felt the Same,” the final song on Side 1, he digs into a show that found him playing for just the barkeep and an old drunk, with his next gig a 14-hour drive away. “The road I’m on is cold and dark and lonely/I ain’t got a penny to my name/Folks back home still think I’m gonna to make it/I wished like hell I still felt the same.”
The second side opens with “Kitchen Table Poet,” which paints a vivid portrait of someone everyone has met a time or two in his or her life, aka loquacious individuals who know what they know. “Heartache for Hire” plays games with the stereotypical swagger found in many a country song, though the heartbreak Canterbury sings about isn’t that described by others: “If you’re ever tired of sleeping/I’m a ghost beneath your bed/If you’re looking for conversation/I’m the voices in your head.”
The gentle “Sweet Maria” is the album’s lone love song; in it, he takes the long way home even after his sweet Maria falls asleep in the passenger seat. “Over the Line” is—like so many road songs—essentially a “Six Days on the Road” rewrite, but it’s a good one. It’s upbeat, with Canterbury excited to be closing in on home, and features a killer guitar break. The light only lasts so long, however: The album closes where it began, in darkness, with the devastating “Back on the Pills,” which is about relapse and the guilt that comes with it: “Father forgive me, I know I’ve sinned/I’m well aware of the shape that I’m in/My soul’s as black as asphalt that sits beneath my wheels.”
As I inferred up top (and as its title implies), Quaalude Lullabies is a downbeat album, yet it’s riveting throughout. On the Bio page of his website, Canterbury explains how he set out to write songs akin to kitchen conversations, and one can easily imagine sitting across a kitchen table from him, the rich aroma of coffee filling the room, while he makes like the “Kitchen Table Poet” and recounts the highs and lows of life as he knows it. It’s a powerful set reminiscent of dark-hued sonic tomes from Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Hank Williams Jr., among others, shedding light on the demons that have haunted humankind since the dawn of time. Some, primarily the young, may not be able to see through the darkness that envelops the album, but in time they will; one needs to have lived to appreciate it. Anyone who’s heard a (metaphoric) radio station signal give way to white noise, on the other hand, should get much out of these songs. Quaalude Lullabies is a compelling listen.
The track list: