Langhorne Slim | Strawberry Mansion | (Dualtone)
4 1/2 out of five stars
You have to love Langhorne Slim. Granted, that sounds like a cliche used to describe the object of their affection. In this case however, the term actually applies. A singer/songwriter who’s gifted with both depth and determination, he possesses a real ability to evoke genuine emotion and carry his listeners along.
Slim’s latest, Strawberry Mansion—named for the Philadelphia neighborhood where his two grandfathers grew up—may in fact be his best effort yet. Then again, earlier albums like Be Set Free, The Way We Move and The Spirit Moves set a high bar early on. They’re part of an impressive catalog that began with his earliest album, 2004’s Electric Love Letter, and still hares those strengths some 17 years later. By turns both heartbreaking and heroic, it boasts the signature sound of an artist whose music has always been soothing, seductive and immediately engaging. In this case, quality is matched by quantity, given the fact that the album boasts some 18 tracks (plus an added demo), each as winsome and wistful as the next. Veering from the lighthearted lope of “Lonesome Times” and “Dreams” to the carefree caress of “No Right Way” and the uncertain stance of , it’s a luminous set of songs, pensive yet poignant, uplifting and yet cautionary all the same time.
It is, in every sense a very revealing set of songs, one which finds him confronting his own inner demons and sharing his concerns in ways that suggest a kind of catharsis.
It seems surprising then to hear Slim say he sometimes struggles to get his songs out. “I don’t usually ignore writer’s block because I don’t know that I believe in the idea of writer’s block,” he concedes. “But I was numbing myself, and blocking my connection to that creative source. I’m a bit stubborn and sometimes it takes me a long time to learn things and I even have to learn things a few times. I made some much-needed adjustments in my life which coincided with some pretty major events—the tornado here in Nashville, the pandemic, all the political stuff. There was just so much going on with everybody this year. I can create so much chaos and noise in my own head through various behaviors that I’ve adopted over the years, but it all came to a head and encouraged me to slow down. It also taught me to confront certain things that’s numbed me for a long time. I’m just sort of starting that journey. Sometimes you make a small shift instead of banging your head against the same door. Otherwise, you just end up just hurting your head. So while I don’t understand that creative impulse, I’m just grateful that the songs came and we got a record out of it.”
Indeed, there have been times when Slim seemed to question his own sanity and stability. “Something’s going on out there,” he coos on the breezy “Alright to Hide,” “I might be crazy but I ain’t insane.”
Born Sean Scolnick and raised in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, the town that inspired his distinctive monicker, he makes no secret of the turmoil that he’s had to cope with throughout much of his adult life. “Don’t know just how I’m feelin’, But I’m feelin’ feelings exponentially,” he admits on the tellingly titled “Panic Attack.” Yet in some ways, the music he makes has provide a feeling of liberation, allowing him to excise his uncertainties and also to cleanse himself of concern all at the same time. On the autobiographical “Summer Days,” he shares the backstory of his misadventures in California, his return to Nashville and his disconnect from a woman from whom he’s now physically separated. Likewise, on the bluesy “House on Fire” and the folksy “Morning Prayer” he seeks spiritual solace, attempting to reaffirm his faith and find new purpose all the same time.
Given the fact that the album was recorded during lockdown, there’s reason enough for anxiety and uncertainty, but to his credit, Slim manages to find a common bond with all those who have felt dispirited and displaced. When he mocks those who think they have it all via the simple sing- along “High-Class,” he also makes it clear that even the privileged aren’t any better off than the rest of us, at least as far as their state of mind is concerned. Likewise, the jaunty “Blood on Your Lips” also puts things in perspective. As he says, “What used to matter doesn’t matter anymore.”
Due to the ravages of Covid and a nation turned topsy-turvy, those words certainly ring true. In Slim’s case, it was his dependence on prescription drugs, anxiety and depression that hindered his ability to put it all in perspective. Nevertheless, with the new album, he managed to find his muse, his inspiration and his willingness to let it all loose.
“I think it was out of some sort of healing, or a flood of music that had been trapped and suddenly broke open,” he reflects. “I had never written that amount of music in that short a period. In two and a half months, there were 30 songs. It was a sweet wave that rolled in. I get superstitious just talking about it. I have no ego about it. I can have ego about whether people like them and what they think, but in this case they kind of revealed themselves and I was fortunate enough to catch them before they floated by.”
In the past, there were those other forces that impacted his efforts. “There’s always music that I wake up with in my head, or a melody or a line that I catch,” he explains. “Sometimes it takes me a couple of years to finish a song. I definitely have a pattern of seeking that muse and it certainly played into my addiction, either being a few bottles in or being high in some way. I’ve always had a busy mind, a loud mind, and then used that to open my heart and open my soul. That worked for awhile but it also became a big problem. I think the muse this time was a light that switched on in my heart, and me trying to find some semblance of a quieter mind and a little more serenity that could protect myself from what was going on in the outside world.”
After failing the first time, he was eventually able to confront the problems brought on by pills and booze just after leaving California and returning home to Nashville. Then the tornado struck and the pandemic emerged. Fortunately, he managed to stay sober and resist any temptation to seek his solace by returning to his drug dependency. “I tried to discover my own inner peace,” he reflects. “I had always been pulled in different places. There was always a show, always a tour. I would always try to drown myself in the next tour, in relationships, in drugs and alcohol, in my next song. So now I’ve had the opportunity to look at my relationships with all of that and learn to have a healthier approach. When I’m hiding, and when I’m not being honest or I’m numbing myself, I can’t be honest and open. Sometimes the thing that you do to really feel sane, is the kind of thing that makes you feel the craziest.”
Fortunately though, he found the necessary avenue to channel his efforts and do what needed to be done in order to take care of himself. “You put it better than I could of, I think,” he concedes. “It was my second attempt at sobriety, so it was now or never. I don’t know I would have cancelled any commitments or called anything off to focus on my wellbeing, but it was the circumstances what was taking place in the world that allowed to rethink how to do things. It’s given me some perspective on how I need to make myself healthy physically and spiritually, and do all those things I need to do with all my heart. It forced us all to slow down and take things a little easier.”
Given his trepidation, one has to wonder if he ever feels as if he’s competing with himself, if, in fact, he’s ever desperate to maintain the high bar established with his earlier efforts.
“After I finished “The Way We Move,” I felt it was the best thing I had ever done, and I worried afterwards that I wasn’t writing songs that were as good as those songs,” Slim recalls. “I quit drinking for the first time after that record, and then I had a lot of fear that I wouldn’t be creative without booze. That’s another gift this record gave me, that it came so immediately. I wasn’t thinking that I was writing a record. That discussion didn’t come until after I had three or four songs. I wasn’t trying to bring it into a tangible thing. I was trying to keep it in the ether. So what this has given me is the new knowledge that when you’re a creative person, songs will come… maybe not always when I want them to come, but they will come eventually. I’m trying to be less precious about it, less expectation-oriented. I didn’t realize I was writing for any purpose other than to feel what it was like to create, and the simple joy of making music. It was more like ‘holy shit, here we go.’ I didn’t worry whether it was good enough. Good enough for what? I’m sitting on my couch and writing it. I was in the flow and not having to judge them against any other work I’ve done.”
Slim reflects on the good fortune that his efforts have brought him, and with a new attitude intact, he can know contemplate real contentment.
“At this point, I just want to keep moving forward, to try to keep it real and be honest with it as it comes.”