The first video we ever saw Ryan Bingham in was “Southside Of Heaven,” the first ever single from his 2007 debut, Mescalito. It was this grainy, sepia-toned cut that showed Bingham wandering on a lonely New Mexico highway with felt hat and guitar in hand, pining for salvation in the emptiness of the world. Better, the song evokes enough of that entrancing imagery on its own: “When I die, Lord won’t you put my soul up on the train, won’t you send it southbound, give it a cool bluesman name.” Mescalito was both beautifully bleak and emotionally rich, a record that could fill even the most anti-nostalgic recesses of our disposition with a taste for the unrefined. It was a good time to be romantic about country music.
Two years later came Roadhouse Sun, a more ambitious effort. It contained similar giddy highs, stark lows, and guttural cries from Bingham’s torched vocal chords. It was the humble restraint that began to fade. You can sense Bingham beginning to acknowledge his own importance on tracks like “Dylan’s Hard Rain” and “Change Is,” but it was admirable to see a country singer/songwriter evolve and show off a social conscience.
Compared to the riskiness of Roadhouse, 2010’s Junky Star was crystallizing. Slow and pensive, it came on the heels of “The Weary Kind,” a song Bingham wrote for the 2010 film, “Crazy Heart.” That incredible, heartbreaking track won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. It seemed Ryan Bingham had become the lyricist and storyteller we all knew he could become.
How then, to explain his latest full-length effort, Tomorrowland?
“Guess who is knocking on the door?
Guess who is knocking on the door?
Guess who is knocking on the door?
It’s me, motherfucker!
I’m knocking on your door!”
It’s actually Tomorrowland who is knocking on the door, and it’s here to present and mutilate every last blues-revivalist and protest song cliché in the proverbial book, right in front of your ears.
The afore-quoted track, “Guess Who’s Knocking?” begins with a raunchy riff that skews more beer-commercial-imitation-Black Keys than ZZ Top. The cock rock mercifully lasts just one song until we transition into the more Springsteen stylings of lead single, “Heart Of Rhythm.” The chorus of “I’ll give you more than silver and gold, I got a heart full of rhythm and a rock n’ roll” couldn’t be less convincing or imaginative—what it comes off as is a really good advertisement for his 2007 song, “Bread & Water,” which was an actual lightning-fed rocker that didn’t feel the need to sell you on its ethos. Americana is already too fragile a genre to endure a dog-and-pony act.
And that is the problem. This isn’t a new Ryan Bingham album where Ryan Bingham has new observations and stories and licks he’d like to share. This record seems more concerned with selling you the Ryan Bingham brand.
This is the first studio album that Bingham had a significant role in producing. It’s also the first since his departure from Lost Highway Records and his curious, possibly-temporary but possibly-permanent split from his band, the Dead Horses. Without the help of producers Marc Ford (Mescalito, Roadhouse Sun) and T. Bone Burnett (Junky Star, “The Weary Kind”) or the label or band that brought him to this point, Tomorrowland feels like a complete do-over.
Which makes it all the more puzzling. Billboard called the move to start a new label, “Bingham Goes Indie,” but that’s hardly what it felt like. Formerly mysterious, Bingham decided to personally take over his own promotion. He took over his previously PR-handled Twitter account and started interacting with fans. On his YouTube channel, he showed off the pretty artwork for Tomorrowland, complete with the gratuitous photo of his immaculately handsome face on the back. Hearing the album, it’s apparent that he foolishly called attention to his already vulnerable authenticity. He’s eager to open himself up to the world and show how “real” he is—dangerous for a man who’s toured on Cowboy romanticism and written some of the most desperate songs of human struggle.
In Tomorrowland, those lyrics about struggle really pile on. The titles of some of Bingham’s older, more political songs (“Dylan’s Hard Rain,” “Direction Of The Wind”) are of course naked homage to Bob Dylan, but none of them perturbed as much as “Rising Of The Ghetto.” From that track: “Do you the hear the sound, of footsteps gatherin’ around?…the time is now for the rising of the ghetto.” Ignoring the preposterous and condescending chorus, the imagery of “gathering around” in the very first line of the song evokes Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a song that at this point that seems to be an elusive grail for Bingham. His shortcomings are disheartening.
For Dylan in the ‘60s, protest songs were a vehicle for surreal, emotive poetry. Dig beneath the sensory appeal of songs like “Times,” and you could uncover the intimate unrest within his own mind that no lyricist would ever come close to resembling. Bingham’s angry songs don’t go further than being angry—it’s not that his basic populist sentiments are disagreeable, it’s that we expect such sentiments to leave us feeling the same way.
If it seems unfair to bring Dylan’s name into the discussion, it’s because it is. But it’s clear that Bingham was the one inviting comparisons like these in the first place. If it’s any consolation for Bingham, Dylan did have albums in the late ‘70s and ‘80s that were clumsier and more cringe-worthy than Tomorrowland.
So I don’t know if it’s more frustrating or reassuring that the best track from the Tomorrowland sessions was a free download for email-list fans. “As I Do My Dancing” (get your hands on it) is a gorgeous, vintage-Bingam track that gives us hope for future records, but it makes you wonder what the hell really happened here. When Dylan released an album called Self Portrait in 1970—the one that started a miserable stretch where he lost fans on purpose—Greil Marcus’ review of it in Rolling Stone began with these simple words: “What is this shit?”
What is this shit?