The Chuck Ragan that the world is treated to nowadays is not the same entity that was present when Hot Water Music first came to be. He’d be the first to tell you of his personal evolution, and his last-second retreat from the brink of self-destruction. It’s a good thing too, the loss of Ragan would not only have been a damning blow for Hot Water Music, but also for a musical world that would be far worse off without the three stellar solo albums he has released since he first struck out alone. Nearly three years removed from ‘Covering Ground’ and we have finally reached the launch of number four, and the release of ‘Till Midnight’ has been a much anticipated one throughout Ragan’s international audience. For the California statesman, previous efforts are certainly tough to follow, but Ragan has become the epitome of artists improving with age, leaving every reason to retain high hopes for ‘Till Midnight’ continuing that trend.
‘Something May Catch Fire’ drifts steadily into life before things are kicked into gear, and the singer-songwriter’s vocals seem a little closer to a country drawl than typical Chuck until the chorus reminds you that this is the same old Ragan, as good as he’s ever been. By the second verse, everything seems to have settled into place, and the Californian has you thinking back to ‘Wish on the Moon’ and ‘Hearts of Stone’ from previous albums, where the fire in his music was a gradually building one, and in a similar fashion ‘Till Midnight’ is packed full of the same ebbs and flows that make the tracks so difficult to get tired of. ‘Vagabond’ features members of Lucero and Drag the River, both alumni of previous Revival Tour installments and frequently appearing within the vast family of musicians that have found themselves together as they’ve made the road their home. It’s a family that has swelled to include members of the Gaslight Anthem, Alkaline Trio, Against Me!, the Lawrence Arms as well as Frank Turner, with every new addition leaving their mark on the others and coming away with something new each time. ‘Gave My Heart Out’ sees another family member, namely Dave Hause of The Loved Ones, join in the cavalcade of camaraderie and serving up a real highlight at the album’s halfway point. Ragan is at his best both lyrically and vocally, and like so much of his music it’s a real “holding hands in the moonlight” kind of listen. It’s one of the shorter songs on the record, but simultaneously one of the best, leading into a second half that is arguably even better than the first.
It’s a big statement, that, especially when you consider that the first half includes the thumping duo of ‘Non Typical’ and ‘Revved’, before ‘Whistleblower’s Song’ allows the tempo to recede somewhat, albeit briefly, before the foot-stamping resonance of Ragan at his very best roars back in. ‘Wake With You’, meanwhile, is a slower affair throughout, and the comparatively upbeat fiddle intro to ‘You and I Alone’ ends up as something of an unexpected hop back up to speed. There is a running theme as some of the song titles would suggest, and as always Chuck’s music is primarily pumped straight from the heart and aimed directly at those he cares about most. It’s easily transposable to the listener, however, and the end result of Ragan’s labours is an all-purpose series of songs that mould themselves to any situation or mood. ‘Bedroll Lullaby’ is a hymn for the road, in the fashion of ‘Nomad By Fate’ from ‘Covering Ground’.
The phrase “grand finale” is the best way of describing closing track ‘For All We Care’. The steady swelling of the near five-minute effort leaves it as the perfect end to a magnificent album; a pounding flourish to wrap up the best forty minutes of music you could have hoped for when you found out Chuck Ragan was in the studio again. Four albums down now and still never getting old, it has stopped being a question of what Ragan is going to say, more one of how he’s going to say it. But nearly thirty years into a still criminally understated career, there are plenty of words left stocked up in the Californian yet.
‘Till Midnight’ by Chuck Ragan is out now on SideOneDummy Records.
Words by Antony Lusmore (@Metacosmica)