Purgatory has been out for a while in Childers’ American homeland, but the UK has long had a strong relationship with all things Americana, country, bluegrass and alt-country; a sometimes misguided rose-tinted nostalgia for an America that isn’t really there, but also an appreciation of the outlaw, outsider, raw and gutsy spirit of these musicians and lyricists. Country music is above all working class, but its central sentiments and aspirations are of course universal.
In title and in content, Purgatory is one hell of a cleansing record for Childers, as he documents his and others lust for the illicit, hedonistic, and escapist. But it’s also a documentary of the jouney he and they have taken. Childers is now a married man and, Lord knows, he has to leave some of that naughty stuff behind, if he is to expiate those sins before heading heavenwards…
This ten-song album, recorded in Nashville, is a masterclass in storytelling and unfussy yet dexterous musicianship that fuses bluegrass with country-rock. Like all great music, it’s where the sounds feed the soul, while the words engage the mind. It’s all about teenage rebellion, catharsis, redemption and love. There’s an old school grit here but allied to modern themes that concern a younger America. Purgatory is a beautiful marriage of the ancient and traditional, and modern and technocratic.
Plaintive fiddles introduces ‘I Swear (to God)’, before the beat and rhythm becomes jaunty in this classic country ode to working, drinking, snorting, and wondering what the hell happened the night before.
Being stoned also plays a part in ‘Feathered Indians’, as does love tussling at night. This is a love song at core though and, a perfect example of the mastery of Childer’s band; double bass, banjo, mandolin, drums, pedal steel slide, fiddle and acoustic combine in mildly bouncy ecstasy. While ‘Tattoos’ concerns a breakup, and the passing of time that has a habit of erasing the emotional part of memory: “Whiskey kills all things in time / Like things she don’t remember“, Childers deadpans.
More of the high and hell raisin’ stuff infuses the gloriously bouncy ‘Whitehouse Road’, whose on-the-surface unreconstructed blue collar shenanigans involve bloodshot eyes, ‘skirt chasing’, sniffin’ cocaine, and not being particularly apologetic despite warnings from friends. “It’s a damn good feeling to run these roads“, cheerily sings Childers, an admission that he kind of liked this life before marriage somewhat put a bit of lid on all this fun.
Even when he turns his hand to an old style ballad, as on the murderous greed and lust littered ‘Banded Clovis’, it’s as much about those escapist medicinals: “I reckon the chase of the pills and the powder / Corn Liquor and women are the culprits to blame“.
It could get rather tiring all this blowing off steam but Childers comes clean via the title track where fiddle and banjo whoop up a storm as Childers wonders aloud: “Do you reckon he lets Free Will boys mope around in purgatory.” And by ‘Universal Sound’ – perhaps the least country inclined song on the album, thanks to The Edge style delay guitar, and the words veering towards the idiom of folk – Childers has become meditative and philosophical, finding peace in the moment, and looking forward to seeing his girl again, which he does on ‘Lady May’, a pure love song to his wife, stripped back to just acoustic and voice. After all this whoppin’ and a-hollerin’, in song and in life, Childers’ appetite is channelled to what really matters at the end of the day, a saving grace amidst all that youthful feasting.
A genuine talent who has found a strong ally in the form of Sturgill Simpson, who helped produce and shape this album, along with his brilliant band players, Childers is one of those heart-on-sleeve artists taking country music back to its roots that at base involves acoustic string instruments, poetry and storytelling. Purgatory is one of the finest examples of recent years.