On his previous album Dying Midwestern, Arlo McKinley showed that he can write an emotional song and isn’t afraid to explore tough topics. It’s true that his songs aren’t always the most cheerful, but they hit so hard because they are so real.
His new album This Mess We’re In is not very cheerful either, which makes sense considering that he wrote these songs after the death of his mother, best friend, and other friends who ended up on the wrong side of addiction. This collection of songs is his way of trying to deal with all the pain of loss.
McKinley’s songs aren’t always the most cheerful, but they hit hard because they are so real. It gives you the sense that you’re getting a glimpse of his personal journal.
You can hear the soul searching that went into some of the songs like “City Lights,” where the melody features some soulful organ and a piano part that recalls some Tom Petty songs. It seems like the narrator is at some kind of crossroads when he sings, “I have give you so many things that you have wanted and I no longer need. But I can’t let you get a hold of these dreams. Those still belong to me.” Even without knowing the context of the lyrics, you can’t help but recognize the gravity of the situation when he sings, “Now we’re running out of chances. I don’t have much more to give.”
Some honky-tonk songs are good for dancing and you could certainly dance to “Back Home,” with it’s plaintive honky-tonk sounds including the piano and fiddle. This one, however is more of a honky-tonk song for when you’re down and trying to lose track of your troubles for a while. You can feel the ache when he sings, “Mama, I don’t think I’m ever gonna make it back home to you.”
“Dancing Days” may be the most introspective song on the album. The beginning of the song is minimalist with just acoustic guitar, vocals, and some bass in the background. The melody grows to include organ and piano, and you can’t help but be drawn in by the layers of sound that are a fusion of roots rock and soul. While the album is full of powerful lyrics, McKinley hits right in the gut with the line, “Now I know nothing is forever, and no one leaves as perfect as they came.”
This Mess We’re In is an introspective and impactful album, with the lyrics carrying some weight that is only enhanced by the deliberate melodies. It’s clear that McKinley went through situations that made him evaluate his surroundings. The real success of the album is that he makes the listener stop, think, and feel something too.