Inside John Moreland’s High On Tulsa Heat he writes “This is a record about home. Whatever that is.” and if he had written a similar inscription for 2013’s In The Throes I believe it would have said “This is a record about faith. Whatever that is.” and that is the only comparison I plan to make of those two records in this review. Gone are most of the biblical and religious references and undertones, here they are replaced with elements from the natural world and of people. The ache is there, hung both in Moreland’s voice and in his subtle guitar playing, but so is the beauty.
I’ve been accused of writing too intellectually about music on several occasions and I understand where that criticism comes from. I believe that Moreland’s songwriting belongs in the conversations about the highest examples of the art form and that his craftsmanship and selection of detail have his work on the way to being regarded with masters with names like Van Zandt and Kristofferson. Work like he’s creating is worthy of being written about in intellectual terms and I hope I’m the person to write that story when the time comes. But today I just want to talk about why these songs matter.
I’ve known sadness in the past and know I’ll be visited by it again someday. Chances are that if you’ve latched on to Moreland’s music in the last few years that sadness has also been a companion in your life. The beauty that Moreland is able to express through his saddest songs is the idea that we aren’t alone in these moments. The songs, Moreland’s and the other greats, are there even when we don’t need them just to remind us that they will be when our midnights are too dark to handle.
The longing jumps out of the speakers in the opening “Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars” and it’s clear that Moreland has truly found his voice as a writer. He gets to the point quickly with the line “My heart is growing heavy from the ever endless hurt” and later “make you homesick for a home you never had/ burning out the good with all the bad.” But an important shift happens when it becomes clear that the song is really about being there for someone else in their trying time not about dwelling on yourself. There are many lines in the second half of the song that talk about being there, being there for that one other person that matters most. I don’t understand every lyric but I want to keep listening while I hope the meaning presents itself. There’s hope in “Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars,” you have to listen for it but when you hear it you can feel what I like to call Moreland Beauty.
Following on the heels of such a weighty opener, Moreland eases up a bit with “Heart’s Too Heavy.” A full band song that’s catchy as hell, “Heart’s Too Heavy” proves that Moreland isn’t stuck making a follow up and is willing to balance the power his songs wield on both electric and acoustic guitars.
As with any Moreland album there’s line after line in song after song that warrants a mention in a review but there are just too many here and I’m trying my best to not be an intellectual. Instead, I think it’s important to mention the vulnerability expressed in these ten songs. Though probably frightening and nerve-racking to write and perform, the vulnerability most likely leads to a sense of power for Moreland and gives us listeners a sense of calm. Along with the craftsmanship, the vulnerability is what draws people so intensely to Moreland’s songs. You don’t have to try to explain things to yourself when Moreland has already expressed it for you.
By the time the album reaches the landmark “You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry,” the balance of band and solo songs on High On Tulsa Heat allows for casual and intense listening. But “You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry” is the type of song that demands full attention. Every element of High On Tulsa Heat and John Moreland as a songwriter is wrapped up in four minutes and fourteen seconds. There’s the natural world, longing for home and someone else. There’s the admission of mistakes made and a willingness to try to be better for the sake of someone else. There’s hope and despair in the same breath with equal parts self-loathing and frankness about limitations. Even if this was the only song on High On Tulsa Heat the album would be ESSENTIAL LISTENING but there truly are ten exceptional songs here.
As I was listening and thinking about writing this review a quote from one of my favorite fiction writers got stuck in my mind. Harry Crews writes some of the most brutal fiction I’ve ever read. He puts his character’s vulnerability on full display and at the same time shows us our own. It’s a quote that I carried in my wallet for years and I think it helps explain what it’s like to be a writer and why people respond so passionately to Moreland’s music. He seems to do it to himself in song so we don’t have to.
“You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over. They leave it alone. Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”