The rock era is pushing 60 and anyone who’s been listening carefully will have to admit that enthusiasm for contemporary releases can never include any believable claims of originality. That’s okay because much of the best rock is artful theft anyway. There remains plenty of room for personal expression, however, and there’s always a place for great songwriting.
Which brings us to Anders Osborne. His gifts as a guitar player are significant, and if one is led to make comparisons to Duane Allman, that’s hardly a negative. There are only so many notes that can be phrased so many different ways. But the human voice is something else; no two are the same. When that unique voice is used in service of personal expression so emotionally intense it feels like an explosion, you’ve really got something special.
American Patchwork is the album Osborne fans have been waiting for since Ash Wednesday Blues. The record is a triumph in several ways— as a coherent musical statement, as an account of one man’s struggle to transcend his own existential problems, as a tale of New Orleans loss and recovery, as a rumination on the entropic inevitability of death and a possible redemption by love. The back story is that it’s an album about recovery from substance abuse, but to leave it at that is like saying John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was an album about primal therapy.
Osborne contrasts electric and acoustic modes artfully to express the roller coaster of emotions he takes us through on American Patchwork. The record begins with the ominous buzzing of multi-layered guitars that lead us “On the Road to Charlie Parker,” a hair-raising metaphor for genius cut down at the knees by heroin. Osborne keeps it terse and focused, adding to the drama by not overplaying it. He steps aside on track two to comment almost dispassionately on his condition as he sings the tuneful chorus of “Echoes of My Sins,” a song delivered here as a crunching electric shuffle but which sounds as if it could easily be sung as a straight pop melody.
Osborne contrasts his horror with the first of the redemptive tracks on the album, the simple reggae love song “Got Your Heart.” But Osborne is always an emotional recidivist, and we’re immediately plunged into the nightmare of “Killing Each Other.” The bad vibes continue as Osborne contemplates a desultory escape on “Acapulco,” a song about Mexico that Kenny Chesney will never record, then he offers a heartbroken tribute to a fallen friend on the remarkable hymn “Standing With Angels.” The line “You’re done raging against the light” sums up the condition Osborne is writing about with remarkable eloquence. In this chapter of Osborne’s life, there is a decidedly happy ending, expressed in the simple love songs that end the album, “Meet Me in New Mexico” and “Call On Me.”
Can one man’s search for salvation discover a redemptive path for a ruined city, an imperiled country, a world perpetually on the brink of disaster? Anders Osborne is not posing that question, but after living with American Patchwork for weeks now I can’t stop asking it myself. The album describes a process—the writer of these songs is balancing the baggage of what can’t be changed against the possibilities that lie ahead, all by wrestling with his emotions in the here and now. His personal experiences become universal observations in these songs, and the listener, by living vicariously through them, can confront his own demons. That’s not an original process, but it’s the living definition of great art.