“Keep This Lamplight Burning”—a review of Brandon Schmitt’s Red Blood Blues
[DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m obliged as well as proud to acknowledge that Brandon Schmitt and I have been friends and collaborators for over a decade. We’ve played on one another’s records and covered each other’s songs. We’ve shared beds and rankled in each other’s stink. We’ve shared meals out of dumpsters and never even flinched. In any other context, this would be indicative of a blatant conflict of interests. However, anyone who knows me and calls me a friend—and at this juncture, there’s probably only three or four despicable dudes who’d openly make that shameful claim—can attest that being my friend does not entitle you whatsoever to any mercy or leeway. If anything, it damns you to the most needling scrutiny. So let this be the preface to what follows: I wanted desperately to hate this record, and as per the norm, I did not get what I wanted.]
Brandon Schmitt’s last full-length record, Send Off Smoke—by turns both rollicking and contemplative without ever abandoning its firm toehold in the foot-worn arena of country-inflected rock—ended with the crippling one-two punch of “One More Sad Song” and “Positively.” The former was a sort of one-last-time-for-the-road act of letting go, like two lovers coming together for a conclusive bittersweet night before parting ways for good. The latter was the next logical step: admission that things have been pretty damn bad but have also been pretty good, too, that this cycle will repeat forever without end so maybe let’s not take it too seriously, okay? This was our point of departure. This was the new manifesto. Not everything has to feel so bad all the time.
So maybe it comes as something of a shock (although anyone who happened to catch Schmitt’s 2012 split-cassette with Blind Pelican probably could’ve seen this coming) that Red Blood Blues is an amazingly dark record. Not just lyrically but in its overall mood and execution, layered rich and terrifying with wailing feedback and the (very) infrequent rumble of drums. It’s unsettling to say the least. Like Schmitt’s been somewhere outside this world and has somehow made it back to report what he’s seen beyond the pale. It reminds me of the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, wherein the unnamed main character awakes from a dream about wandering
[…] in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell.
I have no doubt that the songs on Red Blood Blues were recorded in this loveless cave, on the lipping shores of this ancient lake. The sightless beast—spider-egg eyes and glass bell skull—is the session band in total, crouching and moaning low over the record’s every song. Schmitt traveled alone to this place, and he brought a mic and a guitar. What results in an album that doesn’t bother trying to sugarcoat the truth because the world doesn’t contain enough sugar to cover up the bitter taste. Its desolation is matched only by its seethe. All of which leads to the overwhelming question: What the hell happened to thinking positively? Maybe Schmitt forgot that these were supposed to the good times. More likely, life gave him a not-too-subtle reminder: he was wrong. The good days come and go. But the bad days are here to stay.
All the songs on the record, at their core, carry the unmistakable hexmarks—the chord progressions, the rinse-repeat lyrical patterns—of the oldest sort of blues (although “Wolf Mountain” bears the distinct sound of a California roadhouse country outfit made up entirely of shambling reanimated skeletons). But everything spiraling madly from that anchor of genre is straight out of a nightmare. There are references to blood burning into thick beads of smoke and references to white holy pine singing the shadow heart, treacherous serpents and rivers on fire, spooky details made all the more spooky—more real—by the intermittent concrete detail: Schmitt admitting to living in his car (again), that the last time he saw his grandmother, her eyes were closed (the delivery leaves no room for doubt: she’s dead), the almost threateningly plaintive, “I heard you got a new friend in town.” These direct depictions of human life in the human world are the pinions locking this record firmly to the ground, reminding us whenever we need the reminder that, as end-of-days scary as these songs get, all of this—from the beast slouching in the cave to the lamplight flickering wetly off flowstone—is unmistakably real. A flesh-and-blood man singing the songs of our brick-and-mortar world. Which might be the most terrifying part of all.
Yet, as much as this record might feel like a departure, this is by and large classic Schmitt, expanding his distinctly unusual landscape by means of a well-established symbolic language of thickening skin and blood and bones and nearly everything burning up into an ineffable lexicon of smoke-signals and swaying shadow trees. What’s new is Schmitt’s abject lack of hope. Or anyway, near-lack, for even at the record’s darkest moments, Schmitt acknowledges that he’s wandered from the path, that he’s seeing things all wrong. It’s a humbling moment—you can feel his humility—in “Black Smoke Blues” when he sings,
I keep this lamplight burning
until just the embers shall remain—Oh
let it go.
Well I need to let it go.
There’s a palpable exasperation in the way he interrupts himself. You can tell: he’s remembering his earlier promise of no more sad songs, of thinking positively. In this dark and sterile cave, he’s holding the last bit of light that remains in all the world. He’s holding it high. But the flame is sputtering. It’s almost out. Schmitt knows just how he wants to be. But at the end of the day—the end of every day—the world just will not let him go.