Album Review: Chris Shiflett – Hard Lessons
The finest country music, from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams through to Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, has always been driven by a rebel heartbeat. It’s easy to understand why punk rock-loving Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett might relate to its outlaw tendencies, which seems more pertinent than ever at a point in history where the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ appears to be widening. So while Hard Lessons, his second solo album, largely adheres to the template established by his debut, 2017’s West Coast Town, sprinkling open-hearted Americana with Social Distortion-style grit, there’s less nostalgic sentimentality in the lyrics this time around, and significantly more crunch to the guitars. This is evident as early as track two, This Ol’ World, which opens with the lyric, ‘Has this ol’ world lost its goddamn mind?’ and finds Chris channelling his inner Keith Richards/Mick Taylor fantasies via a battered Telecaster and an overheated Marshall amp. For the most part, however, he’s focused on the personal rather than the political here, giving this charming, likeable collection, produced and assisted by hotshot Nashville producer Dave Cobb (Rival Sons), a broad appeal, though it never actively seeks to court Foo Fighters’ mainstream audience.
At times, in the nicest possible way, the 48-year-old Chris shows his age here. Welcome To Your First Heartache is rooted in the guitarist’s empathetic response to his teenage son’s romantic setbacks, while Leaving Again is imbued with the world-weary ennui of a seasoned world traveller. ‘Onstage in a room full of strangers’, he sings on that song, pining for family and home comforts. But there’s playful, irreverent humour in imagined scenarios here, too, with The One You Go Home To, a duet with Florida-born singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook, being written from the perspective of adulterous lovers, and I Thought You’d Never Leave gleefully celebrating a romantic break-up. ‘Let me help you with your bags’ suggests the smirking protagonist, ‘Don’t forget to take your cab’. Ouch.
The album’s key lyric, however, comes in The Hardest Lessons, a bold and unabashed declaration of independence, where Chris sings: ‘I’ve never been better than being alone / Every mistake I make is my own’. It’s an indication of the importance that the guitarist attaches to spreading his musical wings, and while the easy-going Californian is under no illusions about his solo career ever eclipsing his day job, equally there’s no mistaking the heart and soul he has imbued in these songs. U.S. songwriter Harlan Howard once described country music as “three chords and the truth”. It’s a definition which could equally be applied to punk rock, and that integrity and authenticity makes Hard Lessons a substantive offering rather than a mere vanity project for one of rock’s most unassuming characters.
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