Devon Sproule isn’t your average troubadour. Where similar country-inflected musicians bank on their unaffected patterns, cultivating a sense of earthiness and nostalgia (see Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days or any Horse Feathers album), Sproule takes her cue from Bob Dylan, whose early success was born not only from his earnest, encompassing guy-with-a-guitar-against-the-world tracks but also from the ease with which he incorporated disparate influences in songs that featured many contributors. “Like a Rolling Stone” is like nothing else because it has a little bit of everything. Sproule primarily uses elements of jazz and funk to expand her sound, and this is where she stakes her claim: not as a fingerpicking ballad-maker but as an artist of pastiche, a musician who revels if not in the weird, then in the almost-weird.
There are always a few givens when listening to Sproule’s work: her crooning, girl-next-door of a voice, the country sensibilities that anchor her sound, and her playful, narrative lyrics. It’s in the tension between her lyrics’ grounding in more conservative country tropes—landscape and place, the family, honest romance—and her need to explode the structural and instrumental standards of country that Sproule’s value as a musician lies. But while Sproule usually writes lyrics that let her put her own spin on tradition, she can at times become mired in their playfulness, and the album is worse for it.
Take “Monk / Monkey,” the best example of the album’s conflict between introspection and over-playfulness. Sproule asks a thick, important question right off the bat: “Where do you go to push thirty?” As it turns out, you should “Go with your monk / And with your monkey.” It’s a strange construction, and it leaves the depth of the question unexplored. The call-and-response continues throughout the song: incisive question or thought answered by the pun, which never earns its place among the otherwise specific and meaningful lyrics. Reading into it might reveal something deeper—go with your rational side and with your wild side—but even so, the words distract rather than communicate.
In “The Warning Bell,” Sproule’s willingness to interrupt an otherwise well-wrought melody with a strain of synthetic noise clashes with the song’s classic-rock keys and rhythm. Album closer “Now’s the Time,” on the other hand, fully embraces its southern-rock, Neil Youngish swagger: “The hill country sun could be the one / To put the fire back in your gun.” Less rocking and more funky is “The Unmarked Animals,” an echo of the bluesy gospel of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The moments when Sproule and backing Toronto band the Silt manage to balance Sproule’s undeniable folk sensibilities with a degree of experimentation yield the album’s strongest work. “If I Can Do This” doesn’t let instrumentation get in the way of Sproule’s voice and honest words-- which infuse the song with likable uncertainty-- a pathos of fallibility. “I Love You, Go Easy” is a sticky-sweet piano ballad and doesn’t care who knows it. The album’s best song, “The Evening Ghost Crab,” takes the album’s best lines, which seamlessly merge lyricism and narrative, with the acceptance that Sproule is honestly at her best when she sticks to her own acoustic guns. When the fiddle needles in between a few of the verses, you wish for more, not less, of that unaffected sound. The same can be said for Sproule’s cover of the Roches’ “Runs in the Family”—the timbre and sentimentality of her voice seems made for the song.
Haunting the end of the album are two songs that meditate on the physical: “Faulty Body” and “Body’s in Trouble.” Both tackle an old worry: the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. In “Faulty Body,” Sproule again unveils her lyrical talent, and here too the instrumentation takes turns muddying and elucidating that strength. “Body’s in Trouble,” a cover of Toronto musician Mary Margaret O’Hara, is far more straightforward, relying for the better only on Sproule and her guitar. It is perhaps telling that Sproule seems most confident in the album’s two covers; without the need to rectify her lyrical style to her experiments in instrumentation, she is free to just play the song. There’s no doubt of Sproule’s ability on I Love You, Go Easy, both as a songwriter and musician, and her reservoir of talent is far from dry. It won’t be long before she finds her balance on the tightrope stretched between her roots and those disparate, novel strains.