Nobody right now does reflection and interiority better than Andrew Bryant. Hes always stopping to look. Starting again and recalibrating. Asking questions. The songs on Aint It Like the Cosmos provide complex observations about work, fatherhood, love, and longing. What does it even mean to be a father and a husband and a son? Whats it mean to be from a place? To truly live in a place? To feel trapped in a place? To feel freed by work and music and love? The album is rooted in sensory details. This intimacy gives us access to Bryants memories and fears. The thing that wrecks me most is the sincerity in his voice when he sings a line like I dont want to let you down / I just want to drink some booze on Everything in This World. Its the kind of line that allows you to insert yourself into the story of the song. Bryants narrators are always concerned with being better men, with leaving behind the things that bog them down, be it blood, place, or bad habits. Shaving your beard and throwing out your liquor can be a big accomplishment, as is the case on I Am Not My Fathers Son.
The fifth track, Practical Man, supplies us with the albums mission statement: Ive always been the type to ask what it all means / and Ive always tried to get down to the heart of things / But the older I get the less it matters to me / Im a practical man at the end of the day / I used to be the kind to hide my mistakes / Bury them in a mix of guitars and bass / But the older I get the more I want them in my face. Its an uncompromising statement, one that makes clear Bryants preoccupations. How do you strip things down to the bare essentials? How do you embrace and learn from mistakes? Like his heroes Jason Molina and David Bazan, Bryant is reckoning with time and failure and the past, and hes trying to find hope in this savage world. Hes trying. Hes doing the nasty work of living. Hes not going to look away. Hes going to face it head on.
The Price Was Right is one of the albums great heartbreakers: I call my mother / Her name is Paula / Shes having trouble with her mind / We talk about Shiloh / She grew up there / Sometimes I smell her chicken pie. Bryants a master at these simple, human moments. He can hit that yearning place like no one else I can think of. Kell Kellums pedal steel roams in the background on this song (and on so many of these songs), giving us the sensation that the music is on our tail on some long dark road. You can smell the melancholy like pine trees heavy in the air.
Elsewhere, on Bittersweet, Bryant sings: Lord, aint it bittersweet this place we call our home / Aint it like the cosmos to light up the magnolias at dawn. If the worlds savage, if Mississippi can be a difficult place to understand and exist in, there are these moments of intense beauty to give it meaning and balance it all out. These songs are perilous with the push and pull between life and death, the recognition that everything is fleeting. One minute youre playing ball with your son in the yard, as in The Price Was Right, the next minute you just want to check another night off your list, like the narrator of Everything in This World. Bryant goes on in Bittersweet: Aint it like the cosmos to play every card in the deck? The business of living is sloppy. We find our foundations in ways we couldnt have expected.
And now the first for last. Robert Downey Jrs Scars is the most urgent album opener since Songs: Ohias Farewell Transmission. Its the song where Bryant espouses his code with strutting brutality: Iron Man was on the TV / I was pouring myself another beer / Thinking about all the pain thats in my heart / Thinking about Robert Downey Jrs scars / And, man, I know just what it takes / Yeah, I know just what it takes to start again. He does. You spin your mistakes into magic. You do the work. You put the hammer down and do the work.