Album Review: Tyler Childers – Purgatory

If you haven’t heard Tyler Childers yet as a country music fan, you’re in for a treat. Odds are, though, you found this site because you do know who he is and you want some help thinking about this amazing album. Fans of throwback country and raw, gritty lyrics will love the amazing tones of Tyler Childers. His voice is once-in-a-generation unique, his songwriting is as authentic as the Appalachian Mountains. Give his rough hewn country tunes a chance and you’ll find yourself a better person.

“I Swear (to God)” is not quite the “God’s name in vain” anthem you might think from the title. It begins with a reference to drinking and drug use, moving toward some irreverant commentary. But really, it’s about Childers expressing those salt of the earth values about working and enduring. It reminds me of John Fullbright’s track “I Only Pray at Night.” It’s an intriguing sentiment you won’t hear in church, but maybe you should.

A handful of these tracks have been making their rounds on YouTube for the better part of a year (since the album initially released), including “Feathered Indians.” It’s a song about fooling around, doing drugs, and reconciling realistic but often morally wrong decisions. It’s a thoughtful engagement through Childers’s voice about how love and kinship ought to work. The line “I’d run across the river just to hold you tonight” works so well because the rest of Childers’s style is so coarse. The high crack on his vocal on the chorus stands out like nothing you’ve heard in country music, but also feels a bit nostalgic. It’s exceptionally good.

The creative way Childers expresses his old fashioned way of living comes through in the opening lines of “Born Again.” It’s definitely a unique perspective on a theme you don’t always hear in country music; reincarnation. It’s an interesting twist on thinking about purpose and how we all find out way around the world. The jangly country style, with a well-placed slide guitar, all comes together for an intriguing but slightly different listening experience.

Probably the class of the album is a Charlie Daniels style track called “Whitehouse Road.” It’s the guts of the album, really, bringing forth a hair raising lyricism about life in the mountains. Anyone who can trace their heritage back to Appalachia (which is a whole lot of the midwest, honestly) will feel the haunting vibes of moonshine and hard work in this track. It’s about how the family of the lead character confronts him but he continues to pursue the wild and free feeling of a life of crime. It’s really thought provoking and mysterious like old blues tracks about the crossroads.

“Banded Clovis” is another classic ballad that will come to define this album. If you’ve been around old time music for a while, it’s a sound that will resonate with you. It’s got a gritty theme and some timeless string work to punctuate the unsettling lyrics. The title track “Purgatory” is much jauntier than you might expect given the meaning of the word. The bluegrass style suits Childers well. While we might prefer his brooding sad songs, this tongue-in-cheek country confessional is equal parts fun and irreverant. It might be the best song to play for a friend to see if they’d be into Childers. If they don’t get the humor of this song, then spare the rest of the album. But anyone who gets a kick out of this song is going to be good company for your weekend.

“Honky Tonk Flame” is a love song that feels like it could have come right off of a Sturgill Simpson album. That’s not entirely surprising given that Simpson produced this album. That said, there’s something hard to describe about how Childers can take a bygone sound that feels like it could have come from your grandpa’s record collection, but gives it a modern sheen. The modernizing effect may not appeal to everyone, but it certainly changes the texture of the otherwise traditional honky tonk track.

The final track “Lady May” is the perfect outtro to the album. It’s a farewell from the heart of a loveable singer songwriter. Sitting with his acoustic, talking about a life that was well lived, Childers sings out of a deep place. It’s about a hard life lived with an incredible amount of love. It’s an unsurprising but deeply welcome salvo, bringing forth the best of what Childers does with his outstanding raspy vocals and cutting, sincere lyrics.

This is an album that stands out in a cacophony of lukewarm country music. Childers sings right on that country/Americana/roots line in a way that our readers will love. I can’t wait to hear him perform these songs live. There’s never been anyone like him, so we have to enjoy every minute of his magnificent artistry while we can.

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