BY JOHN SCHACHT
You spend your formative years grinding from one gig to another, playing cathartic blue collar rock & roll and living the attendant lifestyle, and any transition from that is going to be filled with complications. Of course, Bry Webb, leader of Canada’s beloved Constantines, was conscious of that even as he went through it — the foreboding sense of youth passing is what gave Fugazi-meets-the-Clash desperation to classic Cons songs like
“Young Lions,” “Soon Enough” and “Time Can Be Overcome.”
Webb transitioned to desperado troubadour on his 2011 solo debut, Provider, a lateral move that embodied the change in fundamental ways. Marriage and fatherhood had altered Webb’s world-view, the birth of his son Asa taking precedence in life and song.
On Free Will, Webb’s marvelous new solo LP (Idée Fixe Records), he takes a modest step back from the immediacy of Provider and looks back at his years as the raging young outcast, contrasting them with adult topics like responsibility, belief, love, work, and art. These contrasts flirt with the notion of free will throughout. But what could be tedious singer-songwriter self-examination blooms here because Webb’s lyrics reflect a poet’s careful choices (he even borrows a line from Serbian poet Vasco Popa).
“What flame would hang over this house?,” Webb’s ragged voice wonders on “Fletcher,” the tone-setting opener. “The one that burns eternal and further smokes my conscience out/Further from civility into what wild-eyed love/No higher power will hold me to the ground.” The mostly down-tempo songs still draw volatile energy from the balancing act between resignation and defiance. Free Will’s 12 tracks tread similar sonic ground to the solo debut, only they do so more sure-handedly. Finger-picked acoustic patterns emerge quietly, shadowed by shimmers of electric guitar, brushed drums and double-bass — and always accompanied by the lonesome hues of Aaron Goldstein’s pedal steel. Webb’s added some new shades, but with a judicious hand that suits the songs — note the looped noise a la Califone on “Let’s Get Through Today,” the mellotron strings of “Translator,” and the feedback bursts on “Receive Me,” the one track that consciously recalls the Cons’ nervous tempos and shifting chords.
But Webb’s voice remains the most effecting instrument. Despite its limited range, its expression is fully maximized whether he’s growling pointed accusations on “Prove Me Wrong,” whispering intimacies in your ear on the cautionary drug tale “Big Smoke,” or decrying love’s fickleness (“What Part of You”) over organ washes and rolling bass lines: “Goddamn natural law, I have the will to defy it/That moment is nothing with you and I in it/So no more ‘I miss you’ and no more ‘forever’/No good and no bad times, passed through like weather.”
If Provider was Webb reveling moment-to-moment in a new life, Free Will comes to terms with the fact that the more you live, the less you know.
Whether he’s in charge or merely a vessel, Webb transcends.
DOWNLOAD: “AM Blues,” “Prove Me Wrong,” “What Part of You” “Someplace I’m
Supposed to Be”