Review Summary: How much time have you got?
If one has ever watched a competitive reality show over the last few years, you'd know that having a story is almost as important as being good at what you're competing in. In a field like music, one could argue this was always the case - how you communicate the sum of experiences (and what those are) which make up your point of view can be the difference between being good, and being a legend. It's with this in mind that something like Rainer's 'The Farm' is very hard to write about in a neutral sense, because we are literally listening to a man holding his thoughts together on scraps of paper he can barely read.
At the time of recording, Rainer had already lost and regained his ability to play guitar twice to the effects of brain cancer. He was also processing the fact that even his friends and family could see that he would not recover again, and there wasn't much they could do to put a positive spin on that kind of news. At age 46, he had so much theoretical time ahead, but so little actual time left. His hands retained their physical memory, but Rainer's mind was not always able to tap into that internationally recognised mastery of the slide guitar. At times, he was talking in numbers.
I won't lie, I find it inspiring that when his friend and long time collaborator Howe Gelb offered him a chance to use what remained of his time to record, he took a day and then decided he was in. Four days of usable time in two weeks of process. What came out was varied - we get a studio recording of the title track, which is probably one of the most moving things I've ever heard. Rainer speaks to his baby daughter Lily in one of the verses, and reminds her plainly that he would have not entered remission even once without her. The rest of the songs are not as developed lyrically, and this is where it gets hard to critically assess the work presented - a lyric like "We lose our minds, we lose our time" feels different coming from someone in Rainer's position. He mentions the stars a few times, and this celestial aspiration is clearly a hope or resigned euphemism for him to be ok with what was happening. The lyrical themes drip with fatalism, but Rainer does not come across as a career pessimist. There's anger and acceptance, and precious little denial.
The music is roots guitar - a mixture of blues, country and folk. Rainer had already gained a reputation for his brilliance with resonator guitars, and despite the simple base, there are touches that sound compositional, especially on the expansive instrumentals. Structurally, the album is divided, with Rainer's collaborators helping him with a number of full band songs (although never imposing themselves). On the flipside, half the tracks are meditative guitar-only studies, either brimming with gentle resignation or an aching melancholy. The recording is unadorned, and there's a smoky live feeling, like the band is sitting in Rainer's lounge, and he's recording in the doorway. The curators (Gelb and Rainer's wife) leave in snippets of Rainer talking in between takes. Production like this often has a timeless feel, and this works beautifully as a final statement.
Does the story make it easier to love this album? There's a moment on the opener 'Junkpile' when Rainer slips into a blues howl, and I swear it sounds like he's tapped into something that could only come from this session. Simple lyrics land like a pickaxe in context. Parts of the playing are inspired, beautiful and rough - I'm not sure it would have come out like this in a different wash, but revelation can come from necessity. One could argue sequencing and position, but yes, the story does wash all that away. You could let your circumstances trap you in inaction, or you could look to the stars. I'll try to remember the story - thanks to the artist for the lesson.