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On 'Sundays,' Andrew Combs seeks a roadmap to redemption

Andrew Combs' new album, <em>Sundays</em>, is focused on hopefulness in the wake of hardship.
Alysse Gafkjen
/
Courtesy of the artist
Andrew Combs' new album, Sundays, is focused on hopefulness in the wake of hardship.

There's a popular parable of uncertain origin that pairs a simple premise with a seemingly simple question. Inside all of us, the tale asserts, are two wolves: one nourished by good things like truth and love, and the other emboldened by evil, greed and hatred. These wolves are forever at odds, with whichever grows stronger seizing control of our spiritual lives. Armed with this knowledge, which wolf do you feed?

Of course, we'd all like to think we're letting our good wolves feast, but real life doesn't make for such cut-and-dry behavior. What happens when our behavior betrays our beliefs, inadvertently slipping that "bad" wolf a juicy steak? Worse yet, what happens when we think of our belief system as an end itself, praxis be damned? On his ambitious new album Sundays, Andrew Combs grapples with these questions and other existential quandaries, in the process outlining the struggle to live with integrity in a world that demands otherwise.

Combs began work on Sundays in early 2021, following what he describes as a "mental breakdown" over the 2020 holidays, for which he sought medical treatment as well as alternative therapies like transcendental meditation. In the wake of that personal tumult, Combs turned to something that offered solace to many during the pandemic: a routine. Each Sunday, he would head into the studio with co-producer Jordan Lehning and multi-instrumentalist Dominic Billett to record a song he had written during the week. Soon, something unlike anything Combs had made to date began to take shape.

Since debuting with Worried Man in 2012, Combs has generally operated within the nebulous Americana genre, finding a comfortable niche for his quiet, introspective brand of left-of-center country music. Sundays, though, is more sonically akin to the work of Blake Mills (2020's great Mutable Set, in particular, comes to mind, with its percussive guitar and reliance on dissonance to establish mood) or the quieter, more vocal-forward works of Radiohead, with nary a twangy lick to be heard. Combs and Lehning recorded Sundays entirely in mono, a creative restriction that also mirrors the intimacy and immediacy of the tracks' themes of isolation and introspection.

Pedal steel, that ever-present hallmark of roots music, appears only briefly on Sundays, performed by Steelism's Spencer Cullum on the clear-eyed but forgiving indictment of youthful overconfidence, "Adeline." Instead, it's thumb-picked guitar from Combs himself that truly sets the mood here, all rhythmic and jangly, brooding and a little off. Tyler Summers' woodwinds, arranged by Lehning, converse with Combs across the LP, creating a discordant atmosphere that deftly evokes the dread-laced haze of depression and anxiety. And Combs' tenor, long one of the Americana genre's more sneakily dynamic voices, is at its finest, with moments of sublime falsetto ("Anna Please"), shimmering vibrato ("Shall We Go") and gentle crooning ("Drivel To A Dream").

On "Mark Of The Man," Combs strips our societal ills of their usual frameworks (and, as such, their usual scapegoats), singing that "fires climbing higher" and "gunpowder's poison" constitute "the mark of the man, not the beast." We can blame politics, organized religion or even the devil himself, Combs seems to say, but these are monsters of our own making. And more important still, we are the only ones who can unmake them.

Opening track "(God)less" asserts as much, offering the reminder, "We are capable of bloom and bliss / God still lives on in godlessness." On "Still Water," Combs suggests that divinity is within us all, that, "Heaven isn't just a little island but / A universal condition of the heart," no doubt a nod to meditation. "Drivel To A Dream," with its cinematic production and rich imagery, presents a scene familiar to anyone clawing toward hopefulness in the wake of great hardship: "Hoping for the best of the worst / Still blessed but dying of thirst."

To accompany Sundays, Combs, who is also a talented visual artist, painted a series of "earth divers," mythological beings who dive deep into primal waters to find land from which gods can create new worlds. In a letter describing the project, Combs writes, "Just like the myth, in the alchemy of life we have to go into the depths of dark water, the confusion, the storm, the churning of reality, before we reemerge with something foundational." In finding the throughline between his own journey out of the darkness and our societal need to follow suit, Combs offers something of a roadmap of redemption, though one with no definite end point. This isn't pat self-help; it's field notes from a weary diver.

Sundays closes with "Shall We Go," a dirge-like song inspired by Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Waiting for Godot whose arrangement slowly transforms from gentle drone to swelling crescendo. "What are we waiting for?" Combs asks, "something to ease the mind" or "some kind of spark?" No matter: "It's not here, it's down the road," he concludes, not lamenting that absence but encouraging himself, and inviting us, to keep going, to keep plumbing the darkness for foundations of a better world. After all, if we don't, who will? The wolves are hungry.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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