Raymond Carver conveyed highly human themes through his simple short stories; using common language — without dumbing it down — and tangible characters, he showed that life’s seemingly benign moments are often the most indelible. Tom Brosseau’s songwriting has much in common with Carver’s prose. The North Dakota native’s songs are rich with subjects whose traits are laid out plainly, without a flood of metaphor, and described with such precision that they project out of his voice like holograms.
Most of the material on Brosseau’s sophomore release, Empty Houses Are Lonely, predate his debut, What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye, and were written and recorded while he lived in San Diego. These songs show a darker and lonelier side to his storytelling. Houses, and the folks inside them, or the absence there of, have become a motif for Brosseau in the way cars were to Springsteen in his early days. On his debut and more so here, the stories are anchored by thoughts of homes. The title-track obviously carries that theme, and it is delivered in a way that sounds like Brosseau is standing in front of a painting and describing what he sees: “All the birds on the lines, on the telephone poll, bend to the ground all in a row. Far away it looks like a necklace of stones waiting to be worn. The billboard hasn’t been changed in a while, used to be in color, now it’s black and white. And the flowers ain’t been watered in a long time, not since they left the store. Everybody knows, empty houses are lonely.” Later, on “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground,” Brosseau reveals a dark but honest sentiment: “It’s the same kind of feeling in an old-folks’ home, even though you love ’em, you can’t wait for them to go.”
The ten songs on Empty Houses Are Lonely continue to show off Brosseau’s high Appalachian vocals and old-time song structures; waltzes and finger-picked ballads get equal play here. His voice recalls times long gone in a way that few contemporary artists can. Richard Buckner — though entirely gruffer — is his closest current reference point. Brosseau’s songs may be rooted in the archaic, but they come across with relevance and are absent of the Wild West fantasies that have become a popular MacGuffin amongst indie-folk artists.
Home is a powerful thing to most people, and to be able to discuss it honestly without cheap emoting is a tough task. Empty Houses Are Lonely is a faded photograph, still timeless in this digital age. You will pick it up just like that Kodachrome picture of your parents from before they were married and be nostalgic for something you never knew.