“Let’s go somewhere where we can really talk,” says David Thomas Broughton late in Outbreeding, on the thumping “Electricity,” and surely it seems like he’s putting us on. Broughton has one of the great deal-breaker voices — somewhere between Robbie Basho and Antony Hegarty — but it sounds nothing like a voice that can “really talk.” Of course, he almost immediately belies the confession of that statement when he admits, “I’ll end up cooking up a false denial of my apathy.”
There in lies the two sides of his voice, his overall sound, and this set of songs. Outbreeding is carefully crafted, something far more controlled than 2006’s excellent The Complete Guide to Insufficiency. That album, reported recorded in one take, was a wandering, expansive folk record. It was dark and revealing despite the faux-stately curl of Broughton’s voice. The new album is still very much his odd brand of folk, but it explores more textures. These songs feel more worked over, more considered, and yet there’s something more playful about them.
Take opener “River Lay,” which tricks us with just guitar and voice to open, hinting at a space we never really see. Instead, drums rumble in and give the song an immediate bounce, something far livelier than anything on Insufficiency. “Electricity,” mentioned above, has a similar full-band churn to it. Elsewhere, there’s the smoldering rundown of “Nature,” and we close on the moody rocker “Joke.” These songs fill up the space around Broughton’s voice in exciting new ways, so the sound doesn’t fold in on itself but instead expands outward. The new shot of life put into these songs complicates out ideas of Broughton as the trudging sad-sack.
Further complicating that idea is the fact that he’s damn funny in places, albeit in a dark way. Though the boilerplate drum machine saps it of a little energy, the otherwise solid “Apologies” finds him trying “all night to set your body on fire.” It’s a desperate, melancholy moment of admission, until he cuts it with “apologies if ever I acted lazily.” The album vacillates like this, with aching admissions often undercut by saying the completely wrong thing afterward. These moments find Broughton’s characters with a lack of self-awareness, while others (check the list of shrugging failures on “Nature”) find his narrators all too self aware.
As we go from honesty to defensive posturing, from funny to sad and back again, the music keeps us guessing as well. Tape loops and samples weave in and out, and Broughton and his band shift tempos and textures more than on any record we’ve heard from him yet. It can make for an awkward whole — transitions between, say the expansive quiet of “Potential of Our Progeny” and the dance-music sample that starts “Staying True” is awfully jarring — but the songs themselves each pack their own surprises. Outbreeding isn’t an easy album to pin down, which is what makes it so interesting. And while it might not cohere as much as Broughton’s other projects, it does find him getting stronger on a song-to-song level. Somehow, in all of these thematic and sonic reversals, he’s still moving forward.