Adam Arcuragi’s third full-length isn’t so much a fire that consumes as a fire that warms. This is alt-country (or folk or whatever) at its finest, music that elides from well-worn and comfortable generic trope to bursts of originality, music that revels in the holy trifecta or lyricism, instrumentation and production. It helps to have a personal love for the kinds of places Arcuragi and his band evoke, and though the danger of regionalism always exists for musicians whose instincts lie in personal landscapes, done right, letting those instincts rule can yield powerful, inclusive music. And Arcuragi’s songs, with their choirs of voices and instruments, are nothing if not inclusive.
In interviews, Arcuragi is always asked to describe “death gospel,” the genre/term he coined for his music. Like his lyrics, the label is both openly evocative and requires a little work to dig into. “Gospel” we quickly associate with a chorus of voices, the spirituality of a southern church and the community that comes from joining your voice to others. In one way, that’s where Arcuragi’s songs come from: an innate desire to make people sing along. Adam himself is no stranger to turning the volume up, and his voice cracks and strains as it climbs on these songs. But it doesn’t grate against your ears; rather, it’s more a gesture of earnestness, as if to say, I’m giving this all I’ve damn well got – you better start singing too. It’s a vocal style that recalls David Dondero, but louder and cleaner, or the Avett Brothers, but deeper and more polished. While Arcuragi’s voice has always been a driving force for his sound (Bob Boilen gushes over it at the band’s Tiny Desk Concert appearance), Like a Fire is, more so than its predecessor I Am Become Joy, a vocal-centric album. The choir’s ooos and ahhs are never absent long, but the sound never feels burdened or old (think of the xx, whose sound somehow was always both surprising and expected). The first sound you hear on the record is a woman counting with a group of children, and at three, they let loose an unabashed, silly howl. It’s far from gimmicky. It’s a declaration, a seven-second thesis sentence: we have voices so we can make music together.
Then there’s death, the heavier half of the term. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with all this talk of spirituality or community; for Arcuragi, though, it’s the great denominator, the most inclusive quality we have: a shared destination, a reason to drink life to the lees. Even if we’re “the only animal that knows it’s doomed” – out of context, a bit dark – there should be no fear, nothing to grieve over: “Don’t lament, even if you’re unbelieving / You will not end up inside some tomb.” That song, “Parliament of the Birds,” sashays across the floor with trumpet and eggshakers; its up-beat, sunny tempo belies its content. That’s often the way these songs work. However strange, impressionistic, or opaque the verses get, the music behind them is decidedly uplifting, and Arcuragi has a real talent for orchestrating climactic choruses and foot-stomping hooks.
Which is the sound he’s cultivated over two records and an EP leading up to Like a Fire. The evolution of his aesthetic has been measured, with no moments of weird alteration or forays into the digital. The largeness of most of the songs here is tied directly to the prominence of their backing vocals, a fairly conservative way of dramatizing a song. “Oh I See” opens the album with that largeness, and “Come On, Come On” closes with it. There are moments of departure – “Port Song” and “I Called” are, at least more than the other songs, solo efforts from Arcuragi – but they seem lacking if only because they’re surrounded by such barn-burners. All the joyous efforts on this record are kith and kin to the raucous moments heard on older songs like “Bottom of the River” or “Lunch in Field Four,” but the songs here feel a little more restrained, less spontaneous, more mature. If I Am Become Joy was the wild baptism down at the river, Like a Fire is its counterpart in the chapel pews.