Why do bad things happen to good bands? Back in 2014, Oklahoma City’s finest, Horse Thief, were forced to cancel a headline show at London’s Oslo, due to illness, that should have topped off the release of their triumphant and brilliant debut album, Fear In Bliss. This time around, with their second album, Trials & Truths, all set to roll, the band have again been unable to perform a high-profile support tour due to the ill-health of The Felice Brothers’ frontman, Ian Felice. It’s a particular shame if you’re one of the lucky ones who’ve already heard just how brilliant Horse Thief’s new album is.
Teaming up again with Fear In Bliss producer Thom Monahan, Trials & Truths is the result of the changes in both musical process and lifestyle, that accompanied the shift into the world of constant touring that comes with becoming a professional band. As singer Cameron Neal notes, “we’d toured Fear In Bliss for eighteen months, which really helped us get to know each other’s styles, and where to take the new songs. It means this album is closer to the sound that we want”. The resultant album is perhaps just what you’d expect from a band on their second album; if Fear In Bliss was the band experimenting with who Horse Thief are, Trials & Truths is them refining that and in doing so making a record that’s crisper, cleaner and more focused than its predecessor.
Sonically the major shift here is the band embracing their tendency for a straight-up, AM radio rock song, a fitting decision for an album that at times seems to tap into the current American climate. If Fear In Bliss seemed to hint at an uneasy relationship with the Christianity and faith of Cameron’s youth, Trials & Truths seems to effortlessly juxtapose the personal and the political, as he questions his own relationships, he also seems to question the very dreams on which America was once so proudly constructed. This is most obvious on Empire, where Cameron sings of the forgotten middle of America where, “the worst is best”, but it’s also present throughout this record; wherever a personal notion is proposed, a collective response is offered. Trials & Truth is in many ways an album about just that, on every level, be it relationships, morals, your career, it is a record about working out where you fit into the world .
Lyrically, it’s a record that seems to almost hint at a second coming of age. Not that of the first fertile steps into adult life, but that of the uncomfortable realisation that becoming an adult tends to offer more questions than it does solutions; only by embracing who you are, can you come to terms with your personal happiness. On opening track Another Youth, Cameron hints at a desire to do it all again, but ultimately concludes, “nobody will give another life, another love, another chance”. Elsewhere on the excellent Evil’s Rising, Cameron notes, “no-one is going to make you who you are”, while closing track Santa Fe, hints at a level of unrest, as it breaks down to almost spoken word, and he declares, “we’re on the search for a simple life, but we’re miles from the place we made in our heads”.
The most impressive improvement here is arguably in the production, it just sounds lush, full-bodied and gorgeously crisp. The jarring electric guitars, waves of pounding rhythms and bright pulses of keys that greet Another Year; the woozy organs and distant almost industrial percussion of the surprisingly dark love-song, Falling For You; even Million Dollars, ostensibly an acoustic campfire singalong is recorded beautifully. This progress in recording is perhaps most clearly expressed on the excellent Mountain Town, a romantic tale of loves ability to change the way we perceive the world around us, it’s most memorable for an absolutely ferocious guitar solo, it’s easily the match for Neil Young at his most blisteringly brilliant.
Drowsy is probably the album’s highlight and is also its most personal missive. A harrowing exploration of a loved one’s drug abuse, Cameron chillingly recalling, “I saw you shoot that bullet in your arm, I saw you cock that needle gun, I saw the trouble inside your eyes”, before going on to describe the devastation of watching someone’s life fall apart, “I saw you lose what you loved the most, I saw the heavens and I ran like hell”. Paired with a musical backing that has all the richness of Antiphon-era Midlake, but with the proggier excess cut through with propulsive, and unforgettable drumming, it’s easily their best track to date.
In their press release, Horse Thief seem keen to stress that they’re a young band, that they’re in this for the long haul, as Cameron says, “The title Trials And Truths is about us”, they’ve passed this trial with flying colours, and while it hints at what they could be capable of down the line, more than that it is, in its own right a stunningly good album.
Trials & Truths is out January 27th via Bella Union.