Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Even in the notoriously rough-and-tumble, hard-touring world of Americana singer-songwriters, few would dispute that Will Hoge has been there, done that, and has the odometer miles to prove it. From 2001’s major label debut Carousel to 2014’s well-received indie release (the somewhat by-the-numbers, blue collar contemporary country of Small Town Dreams), Hoge has been out there swinging, trying, sometimes successfully, to grab onto the Nashville hitmaker brass ring (“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” notched the top spot on the country charts for the Eli Young Band). But ultimately, Hoge ran into similar artistically limiting brick walls that many of his peers have experienced. Unhappiness and frustration followed, which led to Hoge abandoning a band and touring solo in 2016.
Album number 10 finds Hoge retrenching from the lighter-waving, hooky choruses that perhaps slotted him too comfortably in the John Mellencamp-lite field, towards a more authentic Jason Isbell troubadour style. Hoge’s sturdy sense of melody remains but he has dialed back his approach to a more genuine, less crowd-pleasing singer-songwriter persona.
It fits well. Hoge, now a 45-year-old family man, writes about marriages gone stale (“This Grand Charade,” “Little Bit Of Rust,” with guest vocals from Sheryl Crow, “Cold Night In Sante Fe”) and the realization of love lost from a lonely, aging protagonist (“Through Missing You”) with the sure sense of someone who has either experienced these feelings first hand, or knows people who have.
While the majority of this is firmly in introspective, melancholy ballad territory, Hoge rocks out on the mid-album, crowd sing-along “This Ain’t An Original Sin” (perhaps a holdover from his previous album) and the very Tom Petty-ish chiming/grinding arena-sized closer “Young As We Will Ever Be.” Otherwise though, Anchors is as somber and reflective as its title (and title track) implies. And even if some of these frustrated life-situation stories veer dangerously close to cliché (can we have a moratorium on tunes about “Angel’s Wings”?), Hoge puts them across as if his concept of taking highways out of town, pining for an old flame, and the first taste of teenage love at “17” (a cousin to Seger’s “Night Moves,” nicely enhanced with subtle horns), hasn’t provided us with plenty of material already.
He believes in these songs and their characters, folks who are searching for “better days to come.” Hoge’s everyman vocal integrity makes them reverberate with strong, strummy, sometimes dreamy melodies and enough emotional authenticity to fill a few Bruce Springsteen songbooks. You’ll wish he was more uplifting at times, as he is on “Young As We Will Ever Be,” where he visualizes his marriage improving over the upcoming years. But this is a robust, even brave statement from a veteran artist who saw success that didn’t speak to his inner truths and decided on a less commercial musical direction that did.