Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Music Review)

Gone Away Backward cover

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks held an interesting position in the early days of alt country: He was justly regarded as a genius, but never quite fit into the scene. Fulks was just a little too authentic, and could be as dismissive of elitist alt-country poseurs as he was of brainless pop country culture. In context, it’s not too surprising that he would return from a years-long semi-hiatus with an album like Gone Away Backwards. This is a set of no-frills country songs that could be mistaken for a time capsule from half a century ago. Full of slow, mournful ballads and an old man’s sensibility, it has little of the commercial appeal that was peppered through his old albums. All his past releases mixed things up with a few gimmicky songs or sarcastic attacks on tradition, but there’s no change of pace here.

That’s not to say that Gone Away Backwards is disappointing. On the contrary, it may be Fulks’ masterwork. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” opens the album with one of the most philosophical drunkards I’ve heard in song, and the winding narration of “The Many Disguises of God” starts with a new father’s thoughts and proceeds through the world’s atrocities and sorrows. The dominant theme is that of an old man looking back at life with regret, and I hope that’s not entirely autobiographical. But the prevailing atmosphere is that of “the country”, and this album seems to be Fulks’ thesis on that oft-maligned concept. With deep lyrics and strong emotion, Fulks describes a culture that’s nothing like the one that the music industry wants to commoditize for us.

The themes of regretful life and country culture mix frequently, including “That’s Where I’m From”, the spiritual heart of the album. It sounds at first like one of those “country checklist” songs that pop stars like to sing to let you know exactly how to be like them, with lines like “that’s where I’m from, where time passes slower, that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’”. But how many songs like that would close with “some place I can’t go home to, that’s where I’m from”? The song contains a real look at the things that may make someone try to leave the culture, and faces the fact that remaining “country” in the city is a mixed blessing. In contrast to songs that say “everyone should be this way”, Fulks sees his roots as a personal thing and only wants to explain, not convert.

This album was produced by Steve Albini, and he was a perfect choice. His gift for making musicians sound “like themselves” was exactly what this stripped-down performance needed. Fulks and his music are clear and crisp, with both the skill and imperfections laid out for the world. After this, it’s difficult to listen to Fulks’ last big album, Georgia Hard, without hearing heavy-handed studio effects. In fact, Gone Away Backward is Fulks’ return to Bloodshot Records, and I can’t help but wonder if even a label like Merge was too “big” to let him do something as simple and authentic as this. I’ve expressed conflicted feelings about Bloodshot on this blog before, but their (very light) fingerprint on works like this shows how beneficial they can be.

This may not be an immediately accessible album. The complex lyrics reward multiple listens, though, and without betraying the simple hillbilly sound that Fulks has embraced. Most importantly, though, this is exactly the album that he wanted to make. Gone Away Backward is a strong vision from an underappreciated artist, and there were no compromises in its creation.

Grade: A

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