It’s all very heavy stuff, these layered evocations of the Midwest, incest, drug addiction and existential malaise. It’s quite a challenge Kid Dakota dove into when they set out to update America’s love/hate relationship with the Western frontier for the record-buying po-mo set, and we should certainly give South Dakota-native Darren Jackson, the band’s vocalist and central songwriter, credit for his ambition. But the lumbering prog-folk on The West is the Future buckles under its thematic weight with a consistency that shatters its lofty aspirations.
Kid Dakota’s current official lineup also includes Erik Applewick of Viscious Viscious and Olympic Hopefuls and drummer Ian Prince of Story of the Sea, but The West is the Future was recorded with Christopher McGuire on drums and Zak Sally of Low on bass; Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker of Low and Andrew Broder of Fog stop by as well. “Pilgrim” starts the album off well enough. A cattle-roping romp sparkling with Telecaster twang and Jackson’s agile tenor, the tune lays down the record’s central question with term-paper clarity: If you know “there’s nothing beyond you [and] there’s nothing to hope for,” then how can you truly believe that “the West is the future [and] … a promise.” Couching man’s existential dilemma within America’s love affair with the West’s wide-open spaces is nothing new, but rarely has pop music taken on the subject so directly.
Unfortunately, Kid Dakota fails to flex its musical muscles with quite the same focus again, leaving those Dostoevskian themes blowin’ lonely in the wind. “Pine Ridge,” “Starlight Motel” and “2001” are ponderous mammoths slathered in over-production and a queasy mix of folk, blues and prog rock. Here and elsewhere, Jackson lacks the lyrical subtlety required for the complexity of his tragic characters and their sinful ways. Often, the singer seems more interested in his upper-register tremolo than anything else.
Interestingly, besides the opener, the only other time Kid Dakota gets it right is when the band ditches the tumbleweed philosophizing and sticks to more straightforwardly autobiographical material, as on “Ten Thousand Lakes.” Set to gorgeously picked acoustic guitars, lilting piano and swaying percussion, Jackson laments another winter in Minnesota, the “drifts bigger than buildings,” and how “the thought of ten thousand lakes makes him feel smaller.”
Kid Dakota would do better to explore the mysteries of Americana with restraint, not bombast. Too much of The West is the Future, which features Sally on bass, drowns in effects-laden mush, vocal theatrics and tedious song structures — qualities that strip Jackson of his ability to speak intimately about what seem like first-hand experiences. Drunks and atheists may make for good literature, but Kid Dakota proves they don’t always make for good rock ‘n’ roll.