Let’s picture an unlikely scenario. Attracted by the band’s name, and having not bothered to listen to any of the actual music until the costly rights have been purchased, an advertising firm devises a TV campaign centred on a Night Beds tune for one of the leading sleepy-time furniture suppliers. To match the mood of the music, the resulting ad spots would have to abandon the routine practice of starring a happy couple sleeping soundly in a spotless bedroom. Instead, we’d see a forlorn figure, sweating and rolling all on his lonesome in crumbled sheets in a stain-riddled motel room, reaching in vain for the solace of sleep as an avalanche of regret and bad memories washes over him.
Country Sleep isn’t about to qualify as a party animal any time soon. In fact, this musical vehicle for 23-year Winston Yellen is so thoroughly indebted to the melancholy traditions of the “cosmic American music” fashioned back in the day by Gram Parsons et al that some aspects of Night Beds’ debut might well initiate a weary sigh amongst listeners who have turned up hoping for the thrill of the new.
There’s the backstory, a crucial ingredient in the make-up for perpetually blue songwriters ever since Justin Vernon retreated to a remote snow-covered cabin to record For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver‘s debut being a definite kindred spirit to this album). Originally from Colorado Springs, Yellen relocated to a pre-Civil War house – previous residents: John and June Carter Cash – on the outskirts of Nashville in 2011 and, sucking in the history of the house and the city, proceeded to write and record these ten songs, occasionally calling in collaborators to enliven the solitary pursuit.
The musical templates will be familiar to anyone moved by, say, Fleet Foxes or At Dawn/It Still Moves-era My Morning Jacket. For the main part slow-burning and sparingly textured, Country Sleep draws deep from American roots music traditions whilst also acknowledging that it’s in fact 2013, not 1973. The forlorn lyrics are steeped in beer-in-my-tear customs, so much so that these bourbon-spilling confessionals of restlessness, trouble and late nights tinged with hurt (“in the mirror I watch myself cry”, goes one particularly downcast line on the almost superhumanly weary ‘Cherry Blossoms’) sometimes toy with cliché.
Then again, some themes and phrases have wound up in regular rotation because there’s no better way to express that particular emotion. It doesn’t matter how many songs about living on ‘Borrowed Time’ there are: the laid back, subtly Roy Orbison-esque shuffle is a gem, as is the uncharacteristically honky-tonkin’ ‘Ramona’. The slower stuff – most notably the artfully constructed gradual build-up of ‘Even if We Try’ and the minor-key country-funk of ‘Wanted You in August’ – is even better, highlighting Yellen’s remarkable pipes, capable of leaping from a soft murmur to a wailed cry without an ounce of showing off.
Granted, the a cappella opener ‘Faithful Heights’ packs a bit more pathos than is entirely necessary, and, for all the trouble and strife alluded to on these tracks, Yellen doesn’t quite manage to get his heartbreak across in as gut-wrenching a fashion as Ryan Adams did on the seminal – and slightly similar – Heartbreaker. Even so, Country Sleep is a convincing opening from a songwriter worth paying attention to.