Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: ‘Howl’ Album Review

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The idea that music can give us comfort is a fact that doesn’t need any further proof. It is known. But sometimes, the power of that idea can become real in ways that can stay with you forever. Sometimes, it’s a whole album you play over and over again while sitting in your lonely room, safely hidden inside your headphones. Or it could be just one song you blast in the car after an exceptionally frustrating day. It might even be one song lyric you hear in passing that reminds you what it’s like to be human when you need to hear it most. Sometimes, it’s all of these. Sometimes, the situation, as dire as it seems, gives you a gift, in that music you’ve heard before suddenly connects you to something greater than yourself in ways that frighten you but ultimately heal you. I’ve found such comfort/revelation from just about every song on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s album Howl.

The album’s opening track, “Shuffle Your Feet” warns that “time won’t save our souls” with a hand clap and stomping groove that every song supports in one way or another, reminding us how short life is and that “who knows if I’ll see you again.” It’s almost a campfire singalong of a song, that leads into the title track’s declarations about not wanting to be sad and scared about a dying relationship while realizing that the road ahead is hard. It’s no mistake that material this deep seems to channel Dylan at various points, particularly in “Complicated Situation.” But rather than just aping Dylan, it’s really just a nod that adds poignancy, power and timelessness to an overall tone of revelation and redemption. A tone that is delivered by the  vocals of Robert Been and Peter Hayes. It’s often hard to distinguish which one’s plaintive, evocative voice is which and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. They are both perfect vessels to deliver emotion that is complex and authentic.

I already liked the band and the album when I started dealing with my father’s fading health, but it wasn’t until the last year or so of his life and the aftermath, that the music on this album really took me to other places within myself and beyond, transcending any concept of spirituality in spite of songs like “Gospel Song” with it’s pledge to walk with Jesus. To this day, whenever I hear lines like “racing with the rising tide to my father’s door” from “Fault Line” I can’t help but remember the trips back and forth to the hospital. People often mischaracterize blues and folk music as being about the South or poverty, but the blues are about being human and dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. This song is pure folk blues, with it’s simple acoustic guitar, basic structure and harmonica. Like most of the album, there’s a certain weary feeling to it that I needed to hear all those years ago and still do. It’s something I didn’t really understand at the time. It’s a weariness that we all will feel at one point or another and the fact that it’s here, in song, is a warm, bittersweet welcome to the brotherhood of man. It’s the opposite of sentimentality because it’s not romanticized in any way. It’s not a celebration of pain, but an acceptance of life, as it is. And that’s just one song on an album full of these revelatory moments.

Last year, I finally had the chance to see BRMC live and the show was beyond all expectations. At the end of the night, as we left the venue, we happened to run into Robert Been, quietly hanging out behind the club. I nervously shook his hand and told him I was a big fan and my friend and I took a picture with him. I specifically thanked him for playing Sympathetic Noose acoustic, with no mic, a moment that will long remain as one of the greatest I’ve ever experienced at a show. But I will always regret that I was so star struck that I didn’t thank him for Howl and told him what that album meant to me. I think it’s something he would have liked to hear at the time considering he had lost his father not to long before that. And I’m sure it wouldn’t be a surprise to him that his music would give someone comfort, given “Promise” contains these lines: “All lines have broken but we need you to hold on/ Your eyes have opened, but you’ve got to go on/ I will comfort you/ I will sing to you/ it’s a promise not forgotten.”

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