8.0 BEST NEW RECORD
self-released / 2016
For music with such an easygoing sound, there is a taut balance running through Wilder Adkins' new album Hope & Sorrow. The artist's intricate finger-picked guitar dances gracefully over each track, and his lazy back-porch phrasing is eminently soothing, but it belies the tension at the heart of these twelve songs - between man and woman, between questioning and faith, between the steadfast love of God and the fickle love of man, and (of course) hope and sorrow. There's a sense of unresolve and mismatch that pervades the album - when he muses on fractured relationships with his father and brother on the title track, Adkins sings, "You are a poem that doesn't rhyme/But it is beautiful that way".
Raised in Georgia, the now-Birmingham-based Adkins is steeped in the Southern landscape, and his songs glow with a pastoral affection that gazes not just at nature, but often through it, as a window into higher, invisible realities. As a lyricist, he's as much photographer as poet, snapping verbal Polaroids - a pail of ice, a cloud crossing the moon, cherry blossoms abloom in the backyard - and stringing them together with the accompaniment of his effusively warm folk music.
Hope & Sorrow has a hypnotic glide to it that's reminiscent of Van Morrison, who Adkins grew up listening to. But while Morrison is known for elevating romantic love and mingling it with the heights of spiritual ecstasy, for Adkins, it's earthier and more concrete: "When I am married/There will be no magic words/There will be no transformation/Just a white-dressed girl". And while many artists are content to praise passion's intoxicating fruit (and maybe bemoan its nasty hangover), the track "Our Love Is A Garden" is a tender ode to the mundane labor of its maintenance.
"Mecca" finds Adkins further exploring the tension between the spiritual and physical, as he gives up hope in sacred sites like the eponymous city, but finds it in moments like a shattering encounter with the Holy Spirit while in his mother's garden ("I was tangled up in vines/Sure that I would end up dead"). Other lines reference a resolute faith and a knowing distrust of the superficial: "There is no golden temple, and I have never heard you shout/But when I break the cinders open/The flames come pouring out".
The sprawling closer "Wrestle", which features members of the "East-West fusion" group Aradhna, sees the musician going electric for the only time on the record, and it's also where the tug-of-war undercurrent becomes explicit. Jacob's midnight combat with the angel of the Lord is the frame for Adkins' own struggle with the Almighty; at an impasse of faith, he resolves to stick out the night: "I won't run, I'll wrestle You." The track's second half is entirely wordless, and takes its time unspooling. And while conventional wisdom would recommend a building crescendo, Adkins wisely lets the music breathe in imitation of the song's thematic tussle, coiling itself tightly, releasing, then repeating again and again. The song, and the album itself, are reflections of a deep faith in God's goodness - that though we might fight through the night, that goodness will overpower us in the end.