Handguns, the 4th studio album from Greensky Bluegrass, is one of the most stirring acoustic releases of the year. The five-man Michigan band has taken strands of bluegrass, country, folk, and engineered a lyrically blunt, musically sophisticated strain of acoustic art. The songs have an honesty that harkens back to the glory days of confessional country music as perfected by Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and the like.
The hell-bent harmonies that dot songs like “Don’t Lie” add to the gravitas of the subject matter, and primary vocalist Dave Bruzza’s conversational vocal style brilliantly conveys the deeply personal nature of the lyrics. When he goes on about not leaving the house for three days or driving under the influence, it’s somehow incredibly hypnotizing. There’s a James McMurtry-style storytelling feel to much of the material, and Bruzza touches on topics that most humans have had cause to consider. Vocally, he barrels down the music’s tracks, giving thought to rhyme only when it happens to work and pulling the listener down a mineshaft of drunken indecision and everyday hurt. It’s not often clear from whose point of view he’s singing, but it’s just as fun to imagine him as a sort of all-purpose wastrel as it is to associate his words with other characters.
The band concocts an effortlessly driving, timeless style that surges and sighs as elegantly as any string band has, past or present. For all of the rough-and-tumble lyrics, the music isn’t exactly down and dirty. Ander’s Beck’s heart-wrenching dobro work takes center stage whenever he gets to gliding up and down the fretboard, and Michael Arlen Bont’s banjo is a tasteful and refined as it comes. Paul Hoffman’s mellifluous mandolin solo on “Lose My Way” is one of the album’s highlights, and judicious use of female vocal harmony contributes mightily to making “Better Off” a memorable moment. “Bring Out Your Dead” and the haunting vignette that precedes it are the album’s most adventurous tunes, incorporating vocal effects and eerie instrumentation. Even so, Handguns is over an hour of bluegrass, and before long, Bruzza’s everyman manifestos and the music start to sound a little similar. As enjoyable as songs “Jaywalking,” “Don’t Lie,” “Lose My Way,” and “No Idea” are, it’s easy to see the similarities of their phrasing. Still, it’s clear that Greensky Bluegrass were in a rarified zone when making Handguns. The similarities of the songs and the relative redundancy of the instrumentation only serve to give the record a kind of shambling continuity that works entirely in favor of the listener.