By Travis Erwin
Somebody killed somebody songs. That’s the foundation of Chris Knight’s reputation as a songwriter and we’ve all seen the memes. They are funny and bring a smile, but those of us who call ourselves fans of Knight’s work can appreciate the truth of that reputation, as well our realization he routinely brings so much more than death and despair to his music. Under the layers of grit and Kentucky sweat, there is an authenticity that makes Knight’s words relatable. In that vein, his songs often offer the idea of hope, springing from places of desperation.
That said, Chris truly is “The Dark Knight of Country Music” and no contemporary delivers such heavy brooding emotion with such captivating integrity. His new album, Almost Daylight delivers a whole bunch of what we expect out of Knight, and a few surprises as well.
Vocally there is that signature gruffness that has only grown more pronounced in the seven years since his last release, but given that Knight was never exactly a crooner in the first place, the influences of time upon his voice only intensifies the hardscrabble emotion of his work. Do I think this is his best work? No, for me the album was good, but never quite delivered the emotional hook of Knight’s best works. That is not to say, Almost Daylight is not a quality album, though for me, the songs often fell just short of their potential.
The album opens with “I’m William Callahan” and this is the type of song that Knight has made a career of -- A hard luck character digging for purchase in life. This track does not stray far from that though it does feel a bit more dependent on guitar melodies and arrangement to deliver the mood rather than the emotional imagery Knight has done so well cultivating in the past.
Like weeds sprouting from a windblown crack of earth, “Crooked Mile” is song is about a couple of so-called bad seeds who will grow just fine, if only the world will leave them alone. The imagery is great and the song memorable, though in the end, I found myself wishing for more to their story.
The third track is called “I Won’t Look Back,” and leaving the pain of the past is the theme. Just as the title states, the character plans to leave without looking back. The writing is sharp and feels like vintage Knight, which stands in contrast to the following track. “Go On” is as close to a motivational tale as you’re likely to find from Knight, and though it toes the line the track stays just shy of sappiness in the chorus.
These are indeed divided times we live but even with that fact at hand, the fifth track on the album seemed oddly out of character. Knight has used his talent as a songwriter to often uncover commonalities among us. Dark and light, these collective truths of humanity are delivered from his brand of storytelling as delivered by the downtrodden and fallen. There is no denying the world we live is full of lies these days, and yes, that is the “The Damn Truth,” just as Knight sings. However, it is impossible see truth when viewing the world with only our right, or left eye. This track didn’t offer any real truths, only more divisive political pandering in a society already ripe with too much of that.
The album gets back on track with “Send It On Down” featuring Lee Ann Womack. This is the tale of a man lost in his hometown. A place he doesn’t quite fit in anymore. If in fact, he ever did.
Anyone that has ever had a long hard night of too much thinking and wondering has sought the solace of daybreak, hoping for the sun to chase away the demons of the night. The title track plays with that idea as well as life on the road and the importance of having someone waiting back home. While it did take me a few listens to get the full effect of these lyrics, ”Almost Daylight” is easily the best song among the eleven. Nuanced and complex, this is a set of lyrics that will mean many things to many different people. It is this kind of writing and nod to universal emotion that has made Knight one of the best songwriters going for over two decades.
“Trouble Up Ahead” is classic Chris Knight tale of doom, despair, and desperation. You can feel the Kentucky sweat on the back of your neck, and the grit on your teeth after listening to this track. The harmonica on “Everybody’s Lonely Now” adds to the melody which for Knight is almost upbeat.
Chris Knight is not a man who does many covers, but his take of Johnny Cash’s “Flesh and Blood,” feels fresh and authentic. Knight does a great job of making the track feel as if it is one of his own creations. For me, this is the second best cut on the album.
Closing with another cover, Knight joins yet again with John Prine on a version of the latter’s 1973 classic, “Mexican Home.” Together, Knight and Prine, make the strong imagery come alive as they transport the listener to a different time and place.
My takeaway is this … Almost Daylight is a solid album that will speak to longstanding Chris Knight fans, and deliver what they have come to expect while also presenting a few new variables to his writing. I am not sure the album will do much more than that, as it falls short of the high standards Knight has set in the past. Outside of the title track, I am not sure any of these cuts will be regarded among his best.
Travis Erwin is a fiction writer, lyricist, and music critic. A native Texan, Travis now calls the West Coast home. His fiction can be found anywhere books are sold, and you can reach him on twitter @traviserwin or via comment on this post.