Review Summary: God Bless Americana
My first impression of American Jackpot / American Girls
was that it was going to be a political cash-grab. This is Reckless Kelly’s tenth studio album, and they’ve been around since 1998. They’re not a particularly famous bunch, although they have found moderate success on country-specific charts. So here come these country music vets, putting the statue of liberty on the cover during an election year
, with the word “American” plastered all over the title, and releasing it the Friday before Memorial Day. All of these apparent context clues help to elucidate my initial views that this would be Reckless Kelly’s bid to create the country version of American Idiot
, although listening to American Jackpot / American Girls
has elicited a very different response than I was anticipating.
American Jackpot / American Girls
is barely a political record at all. Sure, occasional references surface because it’s 2020, and the personal is political, but if there is an overarching “concept” to the record, it’s immersion in the grassroots of America. Reckless Kelly observe the everyday struggles and triumphs of the merely average. Perhaps the best summary can be found on ‘Grandpa Was a Jack of All Trades’, an ode to the traditional hard-working breadwinner in what could be coined as “simpler times”: “Grandpa was a jack of all trades / He never once met a stranger, he mowed yards and fixed fence, he always helped out the neighbors, he never wasted a cent, he could tend a good garden, he could sharpen a blade, he made a pretty good omelette / Grandpa was a jack of all trades.” Sure, this could be interpreted as a little bit tongue-in-cheek – particularly the line about never meeting strangers – but frontman Willy Braun’s sincerity is made clear, especially when he sings, “He once was a fireman and he saved a few lives, he was there at Pearl Harbor, thank God he survived / And when the fighting was over, he came home to the home of the brave, a true American hero / Grandpa was a jack of all trades.” There’s very little underlying intent, nor a complex metaphorical takeaway – it’s just a heartfelt tribute to those who helped build the foundation of the United States.
Much of the record treks a similar path, waxing poetic about the simplicities of Americana. The pristinely acoustic ‘42’ is about a baseball jersey, the piano and string laden ‘Goodbye Colorado’ is a homecoming/farewell to the west coast, ‘American Girls’ could be chalked up to Reckless Kelly’s ‘California Girls’ (“I've been around the world and they ain't got nothin' on ya / there's nothin' like them American girls”), and the sparkling guitars of ‘Tom Was a Friend of Mine’ announces the loss of a close acquaintance (“I was driving when the grapevine broke the news…Then silence filled the air like there would never be another sound again”). American Jackpot / American Girls
celebrates the bare threads that make up the United States, for better or worse, and Braun’s uniquely personal lyrics help us connect to his world.
I can already sense where your mind is going – and no, this isn’t a MAGA album either. In fact, the record’s opening verses call into question America’s inception, and the whether or not the concept of the American dream
includes stolen land: “Sixty-six days on the Mayflower long before the beacon hand, just lookin' for someplace where they could start over again / And then slowly moving westward, planting flags on stolen land, sometimes I sit and wonder what the dream looked like back then.” It’s more observational and contemplative than it is preachy, which is how I wish more artists would tackle politics. One of the other sparse moments of social commentary comes on ‘Put on Your Brave Face Mary’, which is about the disturbing suicide rate among military veterans and active personnel: “VA's understaffed and the lines are around the block, so he calls up the hotline but nobody there has the time to talk / They're backed up for days and dealing with demons they don't understand, Mary holds the line while he takes matters into his own hands.” Again, it’s not so much about espousing a particular ideological angle as it is about lamenting human suffering. For as much as Reckless Kelly immerse themselves in the backbone of America, even they can’t completely avoid speaking out about some of the issues that plague the nation – left or right.
Amid all the dissection over this album’s politics or lack thereof, it’s easy to overlook just how good the music is. The album overflows with beautiful acoustic guitars – occasionally ramping up to electric during the album’s rockier forays – alongside gorgeous strings, endearing fiddles, and even the token harmonica. American Jackpot / American Girls
unfurls with a rural Americana purity that should
get old across two discs and twenty tracks, but doesn’t – a testament not only to Reckless Kelly’s diverse songwriting techniques but also to the smooth, pristine production which manages to make every moment feel uniquely identifiable and purpose-serving. Some of the most breathtaking highlights are the elegant classical pianos that echo throughout the orchestrated bridge of ‘Thinkin’ Bout You All Night’, the tropical-sway-turned-rocker ‘I Only See You with My Eyes Closed’, and the stunning backing vocalist duets/harmonies on ‘Anyplace That’s Wild’. Attempting to pick out the gems is ultimately a pointless endeavor though, because American Jackpot / American Girls
is consistent through and through. Constructing a twenty song, seventy-five minute double country album with nary a throwaway track is quite the admirable feat, and it’s something that Reckless Kelly will always be able to hang their (cowboy) hats on.
At the end of the day, American Jackpot / American Girls
– despite its outward appearance – puts politics on the backburner to delve into the intricacies of everyday life in the rural Unites States. It doesn’t often attempt to conflate its stories with socio-political commentary, although it does happen on occasion due to the fact that it’s immersing itself into the lives of regular people. So no
, this isn’t some bloated political concept album – and it’s far better off because it’s not. It’s a celebration of America in all of its victories and failures that also recognizes those who quietly shoulder the burden – ultimately, it’s a celebration of you and me.