Chances are, you’ve heard TW Walsh’s work, even if you don’t know who he is. For one, he was the only other official member in David Bazan’s band, Pedro the Lion, but more importantly Walsh is a recording and producing machine, working on countless albums for all kinds of different acts each year. You know Sufjan Stevens’s two excellent releases last year, All Delighted People and The Age of Adz? Yeah, Walsh mastered those.
He’s also got his own musical projects, including his band the Soft Drugs and a solo career that had, for quite a while, been quiet. Walsh’s last solo album, Blue Laws, came out ten years ago, but it seems he has only gotten stronger in the decade that has passed. On Songs of Pain and Leisure he follows that lush and bittersweet record with a leaner set, charged with purpose and energy even when it shifts from indie rock into shadowy folk.
What’s clear here is that Walsh’s ear for texture and levels is amazing. He played all the instruments here himself, but this sounds for all the world like a full band with tight chemistry. Opener “Make it Rhyme” (co-written by Bazan), is a jangling, propulsive pop tune, with organs wobbling over acoustic guitars behind Walsh’s plainspoken but sweet voice. “You taught yourself, I went to school,” he sings. “But you’re in charge, and I’m a fool.”
The sentiments of that song set up an album that is often taking stock, both of the past and the present. The two elements in the album’s title — pain and leisure — aren’t opposites here but two coexisting parts whose edges blur and smudge together. “Natural Causes” shifts from wandering (“Got plastered…drove around”) to seemingly finding direction (“Read books, went to school, got a job”), but the song never finds a conclusion. “I may not be the man you were looking for,” he repeats, and the open end of that line rings out with nothing to fill it in. Also floating around in the past, on”Natural Causes” and “Pawn Shop Guns” and elsewhere, is mention of religion lost. Faith doesn’t seem to have gone out the window, but the yesterday of these songs seems filled with moves towards structure — religion, schooling, careers — that didn’t pan out.
What we’re left with is the searching present where, on “Rattling Jar,” Walsh claims to wear a wedding ring “so I know where I live.” The excellent “Plant a Garden” finds Walsh admitting harsh truths, only to turn to a garden, something he can control and, hopefully, make grow. Other songs, like “Capital Gains” and “The Modern Age,” address a larger, of-the-moment frustration with economic inequalities, but they fit well into Walsh’s more personal narratives. By the time we get to closer “Struggle and Strife,” the weight of the album bears down on the tune’s spare acoustics. It’s a travel song, complete with body scans and passport photos, and you can feel all this past and wandering present following Walsh around. It’s a somber end to the record, but when he sings of the “same love, same hate, same fear, new struggle and strife” in a new beginning, there’s a sliver of hope. It’s hard to see, but it’s there, and therein lies the appeal of Songs of Pain and Leisure. It looks into the darkness without ever succumbing to it.
Musically, Walsh’s songs toe this line perfectly. His sound is moody but never trudging. The album may feel like straightahead bittersweet indie rock, but “Capital Gains” and “Build Me a Ballpark” weave in bluesy bass lines and atmosphere. “Plant a Garden” — the album’s best song — is a dusty and ragged rock tune, while “Natural Causes” and “Rattling Jar” and “Struggle and Strife” are haunting ballads. These disparate sounds mesh because of Walsh’s voice, which can shift from whispery confession to full-throated howl in just a line. If he’s know for a guy with a great ear for music, this album should (along with Blue Laws) confirm his equally impressive chops as a performer.
All this is to say that Songs of Pain and Leisure ends up being far more than the sum of its parts, and more intricate and complicated than it initially lets on. The past we get here is hard, and the present unknown, but the sound of that searching is impressive — as bracing as it is bittersweet, as expansive as it is intimate. If other, similar records garner more attention this year, then that attention is unearned. Because this record is better. So if you didn’t know TW Walsh before, now’s the time to play catch up.