Trading Anger for Peace: William Elliott Whitmore, “Field Songs” Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Kate Foley   
Wednesday, 27 July 2011 08:35

William Elliott Whitmore

William Elliott Whitmore’s music is simple in structure, with basic chords and cadence. But the messages in his new album, Field Songs (released July 12), run much deeper. Pensive lyrics explore the relationships between human life and nature, and the universal connection between all living things.

But don’t mistake his songs for clichés. Whitmore’s sentiments are delivered with such candor and conviction that listeners might feel they’re experiencing the emotions firsthand.

Whitmore accompanies his worn-leather vocals with just a single banjo or guitar, and an occasional bass drum. The listener is left with a raw sound, like sitting in on a simple, from-the-heart songwriting session. While a lone banjo or guitar puts his songs in the folk idiom, his soulful baritone is reminiscent of legends such as Tom Waits and Johnny Cash – gritty and captivating if not always beautiful. The cracks in his voice tell as much of a story as the cracks in a field worker’s hands.

Whitmore bases many of his lyrics on the idea that a man may live and work on the land, but in the end he is only a small and fleeting part of nature. This philosophy is the main drive behind “We’ll Carry On”: “I was born in these woods / These hills are my home / But I’m just here for a little while / Because everything gets gone.” There is a comfortable cohesion between life and death in his lyrics that suggests a naturalist lifestyle despite agrarian hardships. His upbringing on a horse farm in Lee County, Iowa, has an obvious influence on his songwriting.

The lyrics and melodies may be simple, but their delivery completes Whitmore’s storytelling. The album begins with the chirping of birds – a cheerful, comforting sound that is often drowned out by the noise of day-to-day life. Field Songs takes a step back from the cacophony of modern life and appreciates simplicity.

Between the rural pride of the homestead and the Zen-like relationship with nature, there seems to be a dichotomy in the messages of Whitmore’s lyrics. But it’s in “Field Song” that he combines these competing ideals with brilliant clarity. The track picks up on a slight echo from the acoustic guitar, as though he were playing in a vaulted barn with birds in the rafters. Though Whitmore is only in his early 30s, the lyrics suggest a wisdom that has seen decades of change: “Three square meals and a minimum wage / Reminds me of the good old days / Before the manifest destiny of the factory farms / When those cutthroats came and burned down the barn.”

His lyrics frequently suggest nostalgia – sometimes even a sense of loss. But he simultaneously maintains an unwavering optimism with the song’s first and last lines: “Write this down and don’t forget / That the best of times ain’t happened yet.” This unusual, pastoral harmony between hard labor and a peace drawn from nature sets Whitmore apart from other artists.

While the majority of the album works as a unified whole, “Let’s Do Something Impossible” is a digression and an uncharacteristic misstep. It’s difficult to decrypt his metaphors of horse races, “Paris in 1943,” and Custer’s Last Stand. The song is about collectively overcoming a hardship of some sort, but it’s hard to figure out whom he’s addressing, and it’s oddly muddled compared to the rest of the album.

But overall, Field Songs is mature and trenchant, and it shows a different side of the artist from his previous releases. Animals in the Dark (from 2009) focused on political dissension with rebellious songs such as “Mutiny” and “Johnny Law,” and past albums have dealt with overarching themes of death (Ashes to Dust) and despair (Hymns for the Hopeless). Field Songs replaces that anger and gloom with a sense of peace, trading angst for a content unity with nature and the farm.

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