Thomas Edison once said, "Discontent is the first necessity of progress." Kasey Anderson's new album, Nowhere Nights, available Feb. 16 on Red River Records, is hard evidence that Edison wasn't just pontificating.
"Nowhere Nights is shorthand for whatever it is people get lost in, or sink into," Anderson says. The album, which he describes as "equal parts charge, benediction, apology and indictment," finds the gifted writer chronicling his own personal and artistic coming of age, conveyed with grace and gravity over the course of 11 songs about, as Anderson says, "the things people carry and the things they leave behind."
Nowhere Nights marks a shift in the direction of Anderson's songwriting. His debut album, Dead Roses (2004), was, he says, "an album of stories. It was me learning how to write songs while tape rolled." For the followup, The Reckoning (2007), Anderson applied what he'd learned during his maiden recording experience. The album confronted the miasma of the Bush era - "the deterioration of civil rights in America," as Anderson explains - and earned Anderson raves from Paste, No Depression, and The Onion A/V Club, among others. His third release, Way Out West, was an all-covers set recorded while on tour in Europe and released in digital format only.
On Nowhere Nights, Anderson turns his gaze inward, laying out in song the circumstances behind, and the reasons for, his personal renewal. "For almost a decade I lived in this insulated little community," Anderson says of Bellingham, Washington, where he spent eight years before moving back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2007. "I woke up one morning and just knew it was time. I was numb all over. I was just a perpetual fuckup, y'know? Burning everything around me and then wondering why I smelled like smoke. I had to get out."
In Portland, Anderson began piecing together the elements that would comprise Nowhere Nights. To produce the album, recorded mainly at Jackpot! Studios, he once again enlisted producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (who also contributes keyboards as well as guitar), and Anderson's touring band: guitarist Dan Lowinger, bassist Bo Stewart, drummer Julian MacDonough and keyboardist Lewi Longmire. The album's tone, both sonically and lyrically, is established on the leadoff track, "Bellingham Blues." In a voice that lays bare the weariness Anderson felt when he wrote it, the singer repeats, over a wall of guitars, keyboards and drums, the phrase "This ain't never been my home," then goes on to explain why. "Bellingham Blues" was the first track recorded for the album, while Anderson was in Brooklyn, N.Y. A full year would pass before he would cut another - only then did the album truly take shape.
"When I wrote 'Bellingham Blues,' I knew this wasn't going to be a record of stories the way Dead Roses and The Reckoning had been," he says. "I was proud of those stories but they were just coats of paint I kept slapping on a wall that I'd punched a hole through in some other life."
As the narrative unfolds throughout Nowhere Nights, each track further elucidates Anderson's past predicament and his burning need to make changes in his life. The second cut, "All Lit Up," is a tough rocker - "a real sweet little lust song," he calls it - that places a razor-sharp guitar and Anderson's grainy vocals front and center. "Torn Apart," which Anderson calls "the most literal song I've ever written," is a scorcher that centers on Anderson's realization that "not only had I fallen out of love with someone, I didn't really even like them anymore."
As Anderson navigates his own minefield of love and loss, regret and repentance, he pauses to impart the story of Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, the suffering soldier at the center of "I Was A Photograph." Miller gained fame when his beleaguered, stoic visage, photographed by Luis Sinco, became one of the iconic images of the Iraq war. "I Was A Photograph" follows Miller home from Iraq, through his discharge and haunted, sleepless nights alone. It is perhaps the most chilling, direct song Anderson has ever written, and it seems right at home among 10 tales of Anderson's own soul-searching and self-examination.
The album closes with "Real Gone," a sprawling, chaotic opus propelled by Ambel's gnarling guitar, in which Anderson declares, "All this leaving better be worth the cost."
Listening to Anderson deliver that line, it is easy to assume that recording Nowhere Nights brought him some closure. "I'm pretty averse to that word," he says. "I suppose it's like closing the book on that particular part of my life, but I tore all the pages out of that book and used them to burn my bridges on the way out of town."
In the end, the fires Kasey Anderson set may have been the genesis of his stunning, cathartic song-cycle, but it is Anderson's journey through those fires that makes Nowhere Nights an album of raw, redemptive beauty.