Less than a month after its release, Bry Webb’s sophomore solo album, Free Will, was long-listed for aPolaris Music Prize – a fitting testament to both the power and the stamina of a beautifully-crafted album.
Best known as the gravelly-voiced frontman whose powerful baritone fueled the majority of theConstantine’s punk anthems, Bry Webb has spent the last few years channelling his music through the lens of fatherhood. While Webb’s first solo album, Provider, was a tribute to his newborn son, his second solo release, Free Will, uses the toddler’s increasing independence as a touchstone for an exploration of work, family life and responsibility. It’s not the sort of theme that you would necessarily expect from one of the country’s most impassioned rockers, but Webb has the song-writing chops needed to turn life’s small moments of quiet desperation into a soulfully powerful thesis.
Free Will finds its strength in measured delivery and in the spaces between the notes. The rough edges have been smoothed off Bry Webb’s commanding voice. The thrashing guitar has been replaced with deliberate finger-plucking, sweetened with the honeyed cry of steel guitars.
Backed by Rich Burnett on lap steel, guitar and vocals, Aaron Goldstein (Lee Harvey Osmond) on pedal steel, Anna Ruddick (Ladies of the Canyon) on bass and vocals and Nathan Lawr (Minotaurs) on drums and with help from singer Jennifer Castle, pianist Thomas Hammerton, and experimental hurdy-gurdy player Ben Grossman, Webb delivers a thoughtful and subtle album. Instead of an impassioned call to action that the take-no-prisoners Constantines would have delivered back in the day, Free Will respectfully requests that we just try to be decent to one another.
The collection of country-tinged songs on Free Will are equal parts warning, worry, challenge and cynicism—very much the way life with a mortgage, a three-year old, and a day-job can be. “Go to the places where I can’t protect you / I will keep trying to know what you are going though” Webb sings in the world-weary plea “Let’s Just Get Through Today.”
The sweetly brooding opener “Fletcher” is tinged with regret and defiance. No doubt Webb touches more than a few nerves and solicits many knowing head nods when he sings: “No higher power can hold to the ground / you can’t civilize me / I just keep running back to where I want to be.”
While placid opening notes of “Positive People” are highly reminiscent of a childhood lullaby, the illusion is quickly shattered by Webb’s words. “Postures of defeat / are these postures of defeat” he asks and then, referencing “bean counters”, answers himself with more than a touch of sarcasm: “positive people are having children.”
From the breezy bluesy train rhythm of “AM Blues”, to the world-weary diatribe of “Policy” which harkens back to the more introspective of the Constantines anthems, to the syncopated rhythms of “Someplace I’m Supposed to Be” which was originally commissioned by “This American Life”, Free Will is a varied and sincere treatise on love, marriage, fatherhood and responsibility.
There are no blinders on, but there is no need to fear the light.