Long-Anticipated Album Is a Queer Country Milestone
By Adeem Bingham, Staff Writer
NOTE: This release was preceded by three EPs (titled “Act I,” “Act II,” and “Act III”) that comprise the first 3/4 of the final album. We reviewed each of those at the time of their release, and this review combines some of that material with new material pertinent to the newly-released tracks. We also secured a copy of the entire album back in March and published a pre-release review by Steacy Easton.
Regardless of where you lie when it comes to his new album, Waylon Payne is a relentlessly interesting person. I imagine myself in an airport lobby with a drink in hand, intentionally missing my flight so that I can keep feverishly turning the pages of his story at the bar. In this fantasy, he is nursing from a glass and reminiscing of his childhood years balanced on a stool beside the Outlaw Country singer Sammi Smith singing proudly along to, “She’s in Love with a Rodeo Man.”
But this is just one of the many conflicting versions of Waylon that the new album is imbued with. This collection feels like a room full of Waylon’s ghosts arguing with one another in the shadow of his sober self. hat it was recorded in Texas, only to be re-tracked in the former Monument Studios where his mother sang while pregnant with him, only gives legs to that narrative: this album is the stitching up of his fragmented pieces.
“Sins of the Father” is a raucous and rowdy opener. “Mama’s been crying in the kitchen / Daddy’s done left in the truck / He’s heading down to the ABC store / to get a little more fucked up.” Waylon croons with audacity and grit, detailing his painful relationship with his father and relating it to the second-hand province of watching his best friend “turn from a guy into a dad.”
From “Dead on a Wheel,” a somber reflection on an advertisement that featured a bloody Lindsay Lohan, to “What a High Horse,” where he begs, with cracking vulnerability, for a miracle, the production manages to be crisp and gritty, sparse but teeming. As a whole, we are given a First Act full of desperation and heartache.
The second Act of the album starts strong with a blues-driven number that features an ear-worm of a hook. “I’ve got all the trouble I’m ever gonna need,” is such a tragic & relatable little refrain that carries the steady mood with this wonderful lead guitar part bouncing rhythmically in the corner. While some of the imagery inches towards cliché in the verses, divorcing from predictability only once with the lyric, “If there’s a prince that’s waiting, somebody send him on,” it’s a really welcome lyric and, again, every verse is leaning towards the spine of this number: that hook.
“Dangerous Criminal,” the second cut on this Act, is a tortured piece on addiction that almost sounds like a misplaced Jason Isbell track. “Hold on to the thought that you can’t be bribed or bought,” he sings with a sort of torpid drawl that really accents the agony of the words. “Can’t remember truth from lies you told.” It’s his use of empty space where I first begin to see the influence of Bobbie Gentry on his songwriting. It’s the mystery in the things he doesn’t say that draws you into a search for the story here – and it is here.
“Shiver,” though, hit me right in all of my favorite feelings. From the incredible “Ode to Billy Joe”-inspired string parts played by Kristin Wilkinson, all the way to the extended pause when he sings, “He walked to my room about 4:00 AM looking quite jaded at my disappointment in myself for needing the attention from someone,” this one has it all. The narrative is literary and the movement in the production is organic, emotive; splattered with the Mississippi Delta and immersed in memoir.
I was cutting vegetables for dinner when I listened to the Third Act of the album. I stood at the kitchen counter with a lump in my throat, the words “That’s how it feels when you’re born to lose” resonating in the deepest parts of myself. Trembling strings in the opening feel like they’re warning to brace for the lyrical impact, and when it hits, it hits hard, with a beautiful three-minute build.
The interplay of that pedal steel in the first refrain with the dire certainty of the lyrics feels like the destructive inner-dialogue of a depressive episode. It’s arresting. On the second pass and leading into the bridge, though, there’s more of that Bobbie Gentry sound, like a choir from the past, and it feels like the sound of healing.
On “Back From the Grave,” Payne takes all of the redemptive energy from that swell and gives it language with swimmy electric guitars and a steady backbeat. “I’m back from the grave / I’m among the living / Look at all of this light and life and love that I’ve been missing.” He describes his heart of stone being rolled away like the stone that covered the tomb of the crucified Savior in the Christian mythos, and he says it with such conviction that it’s palpable: he’s found salvation (whatever that means to him.)
Act III resolves with “After the Storm,” a tranquil and vulnerable reflection. The opening feels like you’re sitting right there in a screened-in porch listening to him play something he’s been working on. But when the band comes in, they come in tight, with a spacious and vibrant production that props up Waylon’s voice like beams of light in the ascension.
In the long and ambient fade out, it’s easy to get lost reflecting on the sense of peace that the lyric, “Here I am after the storm,” is awash in. It’s a song that offers the most relaxed space of the album so far. It’s also a beautiful place to pause and reflect on the brash sincerity with which Waylon reveals his inner world. It’s worth mentioning here because he is as eager to share his celebrations as his sufferings, and there’s more of the former from this point on.
“Santa Ana Winds” introduces us to the fourth and final act of “Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher, & Me” with a sobering promise: “The Santa Ana winds are gonna carry me back to you.” It’s a gorgeous song with lonesome harmonica, pining strings, and patient steel guitar. A lullaby for the son of the friend mentioned in “Sins of the Father,” this is a track that looks to assuage the suffering of generational trauma with the medicine of love.
“This life we live is a precious thing.” Act 4 is replete with hope and reconciliation. “Love is the key. It’s all it takes for us to live in harmony,” he sings with all the authority of a weathered soul letting all of the wisdom he’s accrued spill over the dam. “I am not sure how everyone feels about faith, but my life has been led by it,” he says of the four minute benediction.
“Old Blue Eyes” is the last song on the album and it triggers an exquisite barrage of emotions. To say that it was written for his drug dealer sounds like crude erasure but it’s also true. Reading his reminiscence on their relationship in American Songwriter made me physically ache with empathy. It is a pulchritudinous exposition on the depth and breadth of the human heart.
He promised his dying friend that he would name an album “Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer and the Pusher – and me” and he did it. He compiled a jaw-dropping collection of poignant, limpid poems into one of the most audacious, assiduous albums of the year. “It sure is funny how things turn out, Tyler. You finally reached the moon; and I kept my promise to my friend.”
It’s a stunning, self-revelatory album decades in the making. Waylon took it to heart when Billy Joe Shaver told him, “It’s okay to take your time,” and he’s patiently brooded over this project. It’s apparent in the album’s timelessness, in the depth of its storytelling, and in the clean, lush production (Eric Masse and Frank Liddell) that signals intentionality and commitment to a masterful work.
“Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher, & Me” is available now on all major services.