From moving in and out of various bands, changing labels, and employing a rotating cast of accompanying players, David Dondero has seen his fair share of change over the years. But one thing remains the same: his indefatigable pursuit of the American dream, as cagey as it may be. Simple Love, his second release for Conor Oberst’s New York City-based Team Love label — finds Dondero once more following the twists and turns of the American highway. Although entertaining, Simple Love fails to reveal anything new about Dondero; it instead delivers more of the same neo-Guthrie we have come to know, belting out the latest chapter from his memoirs.
Listed as one of Oberst’s influences — you can hear it with those wavering vocals and a hearty dose of Americana — Dondero is still wandering down dusty roads in search of inspiration, but Simple Love has replaced most of the bar-brawling, bottle-throwing lyricism of past releases in favor of softened alt-country ballads. Opener “The Prince William Sound,” with its subtle pedal steel and mellow rock rhythm, begins to mark the shift of this consciousness: “I’m so tired/ My eyes are bloodshot red/ I’ve been around some and/ I have discovered/ The dream ain’t what it seems/ But this reality is nearly dead.”
Dondero has not shied away from the more personal reflections of his journey — “Lone Rose,” dedicated to the memory of a friend, is wistful and touching. But on “Rothko Chapel” he returns with the same confessional, declarative technique used heavily throughout his discography: “My religion is in nature, art, and literacy/ My religion is in science, music, and poetry/ My religion is in the mountain, my church is in the sea/ My religion is to love you, yes my church is entropy.” It is this stunted method that makes me think even after all these years, some part of Dondero’s story has gone unexplored.
Loaded with savory regional details of Alaska, California, and Texas, Dondero’s palate is still full of local color, but it’s satisfying to see that he might have started to hunger for something more emotionally stable — conventional, even — than life on the open road. With Simple Love, Dondero has built an engaging story of his life based on his travels, but he’s becoming a categorical typecast. Perhaps in the years to come, we’ll see another side of Dondero. He’s too talented to offer us another road-trip mix.