By Christopher Treacy
Finding a workable balance in today’s maze of musical hybrids is tricky. And let’s face it: commercial country is calculated. Records often get made ‘because it’s time’ on a contractual clock rather than because an artist was inspired to write a new set of songs. The results can seem forced.
When they set out to record Skeletons, Brothers Osborne say they wanted to make a record that would translate well to the live stage. Though the pandemic interfered with the recording process and also prevented them from hitting the road after its initial release in October, 2020, the resulting disc rocks considerably harder than their previous two studio albums. Now armed with a Grammy nomination, EMI Nashville has put out a Deluxe Edition, adding three new tracks.
Skeletons is a curious musical composite. Paired again with superhero producer Jay Joyce, the album courts listeners that like their country music with an edgy outlaw snarl, but still prefer the coloring to stay squarely within the lines. It’s tough but tidy; toe-tapping and tuneful. Mostly, it’s an engaging listen.
From the slide-guitar opening of “Lighten Up,” a weedy feel-good anthem calling for a massive attitude adjustment, right into the sexy, g-g-g-goodtime throwback, “All Night,” the Osbornes serve up addictive grooves galore. By the stomping, self-righteous third track, “All The Good Ones Are,” we’re putty in their hands. It’s all pleasing enough to forgive laughable lines like “I got the all, if y’all got the night” and “Not every lover is a Coney Island thrill ride.”
And really, there’s plenty of clever songwriting throughout the album, which touches on all the usual suspects—lovers keeping secrets, rooting for the oddball, quitting while you’re ahead, hitting the booze too hard. There’s even an ‘ode to Daddy’ song. Nearly all of the tracks are co-writes with Nashville heavyweights, though rootsy underdog Hayes Carll adds his pen to “Back on the Bottle.”
The quirk in the Osborne sound comes largely from Joyce’s bottomless bag of production tricks. Skeletons comes across as a southern rock affair with commercial country overtones, making it a far cry from the relative cotton candy of their debut single, “Stay a Little Longer,” which boasts over 180 million Spotify streams.
But for an album that’s supposed to reflect or translate to a live gig, Joyce has every inch of musical space jam-packed. His everything-under-the-kitchen-sink approach means there’s a bell and a whistle tucked into every corner. As usual, the songs are built around TJ’s baritone and John’s guitar work, but it often feels as if there’s a musical circus going on. Most of Joyce’s adornments are designed to perpetuate rhythm—from start to finish, the disc never stops moving. Sometimes the density overwhelms, resulting in an exhausting, overcrowded wall of sound. Even the outlaw-inspired one-two punch of “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Muskrat Greene”—a galloping instrumental hayride—feels a little too tightly calculated. Overall, Skeletons is good fun, but the songs have little room to breathe.
Of course, the elephant in the room is TJ Osborne’s having come out as gay last February. While he’s certainly not alone in the grand scheme of things, he might be the only male in country music to publicly come out while signed to major label. It’s fair to say there’s a lot at stake. This brings us to the trio of bonus tracks, featuring “Younger Me,” a single released in the wake of TJ’s announcement. Composed as a letter to a former version of himself, “Younger Me” fortifies Skeletons with a degree of emotional sincerity that’s otherwise missing from the disc, making the Deluxe Edition that much more valuable. Although no less dense in production, the song’s alternating themes of regret, hard-won acceptance, and self-assurance strike universal chords while also speaking specifically to the journey of coming out. It’s undeniably haunting and effective. Actually, it’s hard not to get choked up watching the accompanying video, filmed on the steps of the US Capitol Building.
Of the other two new songs, “Midnight Rider’s Prayer” is the more successful. Featuring elements of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” it’s an ode to the life of traveling musicians and arrives at a time when touring could even be construed as dangerous. The track’s eerie, post-apocalyptic tone juxtaposed with a snippet of Nelson’s classic lyric is simultaneously inventive and strange. It seems like it doesn’t properly fit into the song but, like the rest of Skeletons, they rather miraculously make it work.