Ha Ha Tonka — Death of a Decade. Out tomorrow, Bloodshot Records.
Start right off: where Ha Ha Tonka’s 2009 masterpiece Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South starts quiet and builds to the crescendos of “Walking On The Devil’s Backbone” and “Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” in the middle of the record before slowing and quieting back to its lovely conclusion, Death of a Decade crashes right out of the gate, with hard-picked mandolin driving opening track “Usual Suspects” along as fiercely as Lennon Bone’s drumming and Brian Roberts’ half-shouted choruses. It’s a different album immediately, and that’s the best thing that I could hope for: I love Novel Sounds for its quiet and loud heartbreak, but Death of a Decade is not that album and I didn’t need it to be, not this year. This year I wanted something big and joyous and still just a little sad, a little wistful, and that’s what I’ve gotten.
If Novel Sounds is about heartbreak and youth, Death of a Decade is an album about growing up; Roberts’ songwriting picks up the sounds of their harder rocking first album, Buckle In The Bible Belt, and grows them up, subject wise and world-view wise. After the accusations of the opening track, “Westward Bound” looks out, moving on and leaving the wrong things behind for the right ones: new names we’ll make for ourselves/and so westward and no we can’t fail/we’re westward bound.
It’s the central theme of an album that’s full of Ha Ha Tonka’s lush harmonies — one of their strengths, immediately behind Roberts’ writing and Bone’s drumming, which is unbelievably underrated in the roots rock community — and those harmonies lift up on this one, songs about wasted time and what you do with those regrets (now I know my wasted days are gone). They use the harmonies to shift tempo and sound within songs, sounding confident and solid in their place in the world, Roberts as a songwriter and the band as its own entity.
Even when they turn reflexive mid-album, with “Hide It Well” and “Dead Man’s Hands”, the quieter songs bookended by the riotous “Lonely Fortunes” and the chiming “Problem Solver” (a back-handed compliment or condemnation of a woman who wants to solve all the narrator’s problems for him, the most soul-filled track on the album in Roberts’ choruses), fit that mold, of getting older and prioritizing your life in new ways. “Hide It Well” is especially poignant; a song about hiding the demons in your life immediately before a song about not getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And the title track, which is as much about getting older — when that number in front of your age changes — as it is about the turning of the years, is full of grungy, fiery guitars and a defiant chorus, before the album closes with the resigned and hopeful “No Great Harm” (carried my own weight just as long as I could/and I only hurt the ones I loved/by keeping it separate and saying I could handle it all alone) and almost bitter “The Humorist”, a song about keeping up appearances — a strange closer, in a way, on an album about being true to yourself and your life, but also appropriate. The abrupt shudder of guitars and drums at the end of that track is exactly the way this album should close — like an open door.
Overall, is Death of a Decade as strong an album as Novel Sounds? Probably not; like Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound, the Tonk’s Novel Sounds is a marvel of an record, 13 tracks paced perfectly and not meant, really, to be separated from one another. Does that mean that Death of a Decade is not one of the strongest records released so far this year, in my opinion? No, it doesn’t. The songwriting is more complex and adult — their already thick instrumentation and orchestration is more complex and suited to these songs, as well. It’s an album of songs that all fit together beautifully, but they also all stand individually. There are singles on this record, plucked out from the whole, and that is a step forward, in the best possible way. It is utterly — gorgeous is the wrong word, but shudderingly strong and hopeful.
I needed Novel Sounds in 2009, and I can say in all fairness, I need Death of a Decade now, in 2011, trying to grow up and stay focused and make all those Novel Sounds dreams concrete.