Although Willy Vlautin has long been regarded as a standard-bearer for contemporary Americana, particularly on these shores, it wasn’t until the recording of Richmond Fontaine’s fourth album, Winnemucca, in 2002, that the Portland-based group truly made the step-up from kick-ass bar-band to saddle-sore alt.country outlaws; their trilogy of visceral releases for Cavity Search in the late 90’s having had more in common with the countrified punk of The Blasters or Uncle Tupelo than the back-porch Americana of trailblazing roots-rockers The Jayhawks. Winnemucca, though, was a more introspective undertaking, foregrounding Vlautin’s plainspoken vignettes of cursed gamblers, fretful drunks and worn-down waitresses, while fully embracing the “dirty realist” template that would so define the band over the next decade.
Winnemucca was the beginning of a lucky streak that stretched all the way to 2009’s We Thought the Freeway Sounded like a River, although, unfortunately, sustained critical acclaim wasn’t to be accompanied by a corresponding hike in album sales. Even their most “commercial” of records, Post to Wire (2004) struggled to shift more than 20,000 copies! It was only the success of Vlautin’s hard-nosed novels (occasionally featuring characters that criss-crossed the borders between his songs and short stories) that kept the cult band on the road into their second decade. However, with founder-member Dave Harding having relocated to Denmark and with Vlautin now devoting more and more time to his retro country-soul outfit The Delines, the blood-brothers decided it was time to fold a winning hand.
You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To is clearly a deeply felt farewell. Conceived by its author as ‘an end-piece for the characters who inhabited the world of Richmond Fontaine over the years’, as well as for ‘all the guys we know who have hit the wall, are about to hit the wall or are in the middle of slamming into it. It’s a record about paying the price for the way one’s lived’.
The ex-housepainter, warehouseman and racetrack gambler has always written about his past without a shred of sentimentality, as unflinching self-portraits like “The Warehouse Life”, “Casino Lights” and “I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona” testify; You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To is cut from the same cloth, with Vlautin steadfastly refusing to romanticise his long goodbye,
‘I know what you abandon dies / what you leave leaves you too / I know you can’t go back / if there’s nothing to go back to’.
The record kicks off with the fine-grained instrumental “Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn” which sets the album’s reflective mood and leads straight into “Wake up Ray” a mid-tempo toe-tapper that stands comparison with its country-rock counterparts “Barely Losing” and “Always on the Ride” from the band’s most accessible release Post to Wire. The songs’ honky-tonk heartbeat, courtesy of a throbbing baritone guitar, is duplicated on “I Got Off the Bus” (literally the next step in the Ray Thaves’ saga, that dates back to 1998’s “5 Degrees Below Zero”), although it’s really the album’s bouquet of tear-stained ballads “Whitey and Me”, “Three Brothers Roll into Town”, “Don’t Skip Out On Me”, “A Night in the City” and “Easy Run” that truly mark this record out as a genre classic.
The Carveresque “Three Brothers Roll into Town” may well be the pick of the bunch, though. Vlautin takes ace songwriter Jim Ford’s harrowing “Harlan County”, a visceral tale of a child coalminer who becomes ‘tired of livin’ when he’s twenty’, as a starting point for his own homespun anthem for doomed youth,
‘They cooked their meals on a Coleman stove / The oldest got a job washing dishes in an old folks home / The middle got on with a construction crew / And the youngest helped his cousin collecting scrap metal from a guy who never paid what he was supposed to / Time, time don’t mean anything / When you’re 16, 19 and 20 / Time, time don’t mean anything / When you’re already sinking at 16, 19 and 20’.
Vlautin writes with the same eye for detail when capturing the bewildered bitterness of an abandoned lover on “Two Friends at Sea”,
‘I don’t care if she plays / My old Armstrong records to him / Or makes pancakes in her underwear / For him in the morning / But does she wake him up in the middle of the night / Just to start talking?’
While Vlautin was never going to bow out with a feel-good album (thankfully, there’s not a countrypolitan chorus in sight!), but the song that closes out the album, and by extension, the band’s career, “Easy Run”, does hold out the faint promise of a happy ending, with its imagined reunion of lovelorn characters from the band’s back catalogue.
With the band’s key personnel, from Paul Brainard to Dave Harding, back in harness for the last round-up and with The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee-Drizos guesting on keyboards, producer John Askew (who also doubles up on guitar) has the band’s best ever line-up at his disposal and it shows. The songs are as gut-wrenching as they ever were, but Askew softens them around the edges, adding a sombre piano coda or a lone trumpet lament as they drift to a close. Nobody, least of all the man himself, would make any great claims for Vlautin as a rock ’n’ roll singer; his voice is a benign and wistful instrument, pitched somewhere between Green On Red’s Dan Stuart and The Miracle Legion’s Mark Mulcahy, but he really does deliver the goods here, prying every sliver of meaning from a song’s lyric, and, I swear, he almost croons the chorus of “Night in the City”! There really isn’t anything in Richmond Fontaine’s oeuvre that quite prepares you for the mournful magnificence of You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To.
If the album has a companion piece at all, it’s probably The Delines’ country-soul debut Colfax (2014), again produced by Askew. The discipline of writing an album’s worth of torch songs for The Damnations’ Amy Boone has re-invigorated Vlautin’s songwriting (and singing) in a profound way. Speaking to Wales Arts Review last year Vlautin acknowledged the transformation – ‘It was freeing really, I got to write songs that I wouldn’t have had the nerve to sing’. You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To is the record that Vlautin always dreamed of making – a 24 carat country-soul classic. It’s a wonderful epitaph for the finest purveyors of Americana in a generation.