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When The Lone Bellow took the stage on the “Late Show With David Letterman” on Jan. 26, they evoked a bit of snark from the talk show host. “Our next guests are a Brooklyn-based trio,” Letterman began by way of introduction, and turned to survey the 11 musicians gathered onstage. “Get a look at the size of that trio,” he cracked, to an uproar from audience and band alike.
The three core members of The Lone Bellow—lead singer Zach Williams, mandolinist Kanene Pipkin and guitarist Brian Elmquist—fashion cathartic, sing-alongable country-rock around resonant three-part harmony. But they arrived to the “Late Show” with plenty of backup to help them perform “Then Came the Morning,” the title track from their new album. The song is a perpetually ascending ballad in triple time, buoyed by strings and a horn section and Williams’ anguished, full-throttle belt. It is the sort of piece that requires a large band to really do it justice. As well-acquainted as The Lone Bellow are with lyrical intimacy and textural restraint, their priority is to move you. It is a relief to relax and let them spirit you away.
The group’s structure makes more sense if you know its history. (The band plays at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Feb. 12—that show’s sold-out—and the Port City Music Hall in Portland, Maine, on Feb. 23.) The Lone Bellow began four years ago as an eight-piece band, playing divey New York City bars on the weekends while its members toiled away the weekdays as pastry chefs and waiters. But it was ultimately Williams, Pipkin and Elmquist who quit their day jobs to take the project on the road.
Yet something of the band’s original incarnation remained. “When we went in to record ‘Then Came the Morning,’ we really wanted to make a New York-based record,” says the Georgia-born Williams. “And use as many of our friends as we could. And just have a good time making something out of nothing.”
To Williams, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three young daughters, that sense of camaraderie extends well beyond the stage. “We lean heavily on our neighborhood and our group of friends here in New York,” he explains. “These friends have supported the music since I moved to New York, back almost 10 years ago, when I was playing the little bars in the middle of the night, and this and that. And really, our hope is that we can kind of grow old and funny together in the same neighborhood. It’s hard, but we’re going to keep trying. Because I feel like a lot of those values leak into the actual songwriting and musicianship of what we’re working on.”
Williams’ first songs were written nearly a decade ago during a turbulent period when his wife was recovering from a devastating horseback riding accident. It’s a well-worn tale, one that has worked its way into the band’s biographical lore and casts focus on the more brooding elements of their songs. But though Williams penned the bulk of the material for The Lone Bellow’s eponymous debut, the songs on “Then Came the Morning” were co-written by Williams, Pipkin and Elmquist.
Being in a band has a particular intimacy, says Williams, that translates to the writing process. “You really have to lean on each other and take care of each other,” he says. “So then, when you boil it down to the actual songwriting—which is like, you have to put yourself in a pretty vulnerable situation, and you really have to trust the other people that are in the room with you, to try to make something that you’re proud of—all of those other minute details and conversations, they’re all sitting there like the elephants in the room at the same time. I think that it’s a powerful—it’s like the power of the mundane, you know? Every day is this opportunity to see the situation that your neighborhood’s in, and the world you live in is in, and maybe even you yourself are particularly in. And those things have a way of finding themselves in the in-between conversations of writing.”
“Then Came the Morning” trades the electric twang of its predecessor for a piano-plunking, gospel-inflected feel. Some of the songs sound like they would be at home on a Springsteen record, while others channel the ecstasy of a church choir. “Then Came the Morning” was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, and it displays the exquisite tastefulness typical of his projects. But what stands out especially is The Lone Bellow’s deft navigation between melancholy and transcendence.
You can hear it in “Fake Roses,” which paints a devastatingly wrought picture of a desolate life, yet rises fervently in the chorus, as though levitated by the night air in the song: “It’s a low and lonesome sound/ When the wind sweeps through the pines/ She just turns the TV on/ Puts her mind to better times.”
Appraised by its lyrics alone, “Then Came the Morning,” which conjures the aftermath of a breakup, is a bitter piece of writing: “Then came the morning/ It was bright, like the light that you kept from your smile.” But it is perhaps The Lone Bellow’s most sublime composition, a dynamic masterpiece hinging on the crest of optimism that builds in the wake of disintegrating defeat.
“I don’t always have the opportunity to write a joyful song. But I also want to be honest with myself when I write a song that’s not joyful or that’s melancholy,” says Williams.
“And I don’t know, sometimes lyrics just lead—even dark lyrics or pessimistic lyrics—lead to triumphant-type melodies for me. And I’m just along for the ride.”
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