While most may know songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney in a producer or sideman role, he does make solo albums too. Safe Passage is his follow-up to 2018’s Coyote which dealt with external tragedies. This one is more inward-oriented as Abney tries to find the balance between the joy of making music and coping with a myriad of emotions. Like he’s done before Abney finds hope and light. He thought he had this album nailed before his father suddenly passed, giving the album a newer, broader meaning.
”For the longest time, I really thought this record was autobiographical,” he explains. “But since the stark reality of what has taken place recently, I’ve realized that these songs are as much about those around me, including the aspects of life that keep us all from wanting to make connections with others or live intentional lives: loneliness, addiction, fear, worry. My dad was really troubled by these things but optimistic to a fault. I believe he wanted the same for the world, for everyone to have safe passage from these struggles and now, these words mean something much deeper to me than they once did.”
Abney does spend the bulk of his time in service to others, notably songsmith John Moreland (who plays guitar here)as well as several other artists. Recently Abney has been scoring films and documentaries between sessions and shoes. His influences range far beyond the Oklahoma and Midwest artists he typically supports and include Brian Wilson, Sheryl crow, Nick and Molly Drake, J.J. Cale, Japanese pop artist Haruomi Hosono, Molly Tuttle, and even acclaimed video game music composers Shogo Sakai and Yasunori Mitsuda. Thus, his music sounds every bit as much pop like as it does roots.
Abney plays nine different instruments, mostly guitars and keys. Besides Moreland, who plays an array of guitars, Megan Palmer (harmony vocals, violin, Wurlitzer, synthesizer), Shonna Tucker (formerly of Drive-by Truckers- harmony vocals and electric bass), and Will Johnson (drums, percussion, harmonies) round out the core band.
The theme of the album is defined by the bookend pieces “I Just Want to Feel Good” and “Maybe Happy.” It’s a quest to find happiness within oneself. The Beach Boys influence is felt in the sweet, lazy backdrop for a lesson in patience on “Kind Days” with this lyric – “Bad days are leaving/No use in grieving/Here come those kind days.” It’s one of many examples where Abney not only tries to lift himself up but does so for all of us. He uses a catchy hook in “Turn Again” and urges us to be kind to ourselves in the harmonic-driven “When the Dark Winds Blow.”
”Backward Spring” which begins with gentle acoustic strumming, becomes almost like the blooming flowers he sings about, as the band gathers momentum and pushes him. Abney’s pedal steel is especially poignant. “Days of Disconnect” may well be the best example of his core band in full throttle, not to suggest it’s a driving tempo but more in terms of the synergy between violinist/vocalist Megan Palmer, bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker and Abney on keys. It has some memorable chorus passages and is a fine example of using space effectively.
”Typeface in Bold” is especially soft and quiet as is the instrumental reprise “Soft Rain After All” which leads into the closer, a lush orchestral string backdrop and synthesizers for a contemplative song that has Abney finding elusive comfort in the cautiously optimistic “Maybe Happy.” The piano though creates a sense that the feeling is far from perfect as does the lyric – “I know you can’t tell, but I’ve been doing well.” It’s this difference between the outward expression and inward emotion that lie at the heart of the album.
Safe Passage takes more than casual listening. It sounds pleasant enough but there’s plenty of thought and discourse about various emotions throughout which one can only appreciate through careful listening.