“If I don’t know by now, I don’t think I ever will,” Ken Yates sings in “Grey County Blues,” the opening song of “Quiet Talkers,” his third album released today. He sings tiredly, world weary, as if making a statement, an assertion of fact and yet somehow, it feels more like a question. A question that gets asked over and over again in the still of night, in the slow reveal of mountain heights through a misted rain, with the morning dawning on a long lonely road stretching far into the horizon. Each of the songs that follow, introspective, thoughtful, meticulously drawn sketches, outline the shape, shade in some of the shadow, fill in some the details, but just enough to leave the heart wondering if we ever truly know anything at all.
Yates describes this album’s songs as “thoughts from the quietest person in the room.” Amidst the noise and the blare of all that surrounds us, love and missed chances, are most likely at the core of our inner most thinking. Longing that wells up through the cracks in the mortar of our disguise. It is hard to acknowledge a set of more concise yet expansive lyrics and melodies fully realized, than the fourteen songs contained on “Quiet Talkers.” The compositions are crafted with insightful emotional precision, like an invitation into moments of silent reflection and recognition.
Like all accomplished songwriters, Yates knows that pacing and pause are equal when a story can’t wait to be told, when words need expressing despite turmoil and uncertainty. If “Grey County Blues” poses the question, then his recent single, “Surviving Is Easy,” broadens the scope of the inquiry; “Who gives a damn about a broken heart? / Who gives a damn about a couple new scars? / But getting by will only get you so far/ Surviving is easy /But living is hard.” Perhaps the most infectious of all the songs within this album, its easy accessible format belies the message it contains. All the songs on this album have the same quality and characteristics, both drawing you in while lyrically posing hard emotional discoveries.
“Two Wrongs” and “Quiet Talkers” introduce characters who are lonely, hesitant, and a little lost, but willing to find a path forward if time holds out. “Slurring your words and feeling alive / I’m not looking for love / Just looking for someone to say it’s alright / I don’t want to be alone tonight / Don’t let me be alone tonight / You can keep on talking all quiet as long as you’d like.” Both “Easy Way Out” and “When We Came Home” continue in the musical format of “Surviving Is Easy,” but with more intensity and steadfast assurance.
“When We Came Home” seems destined to be a staple of classic folk-roots radio songs. Thematically, it asks that age old question, ‘can we ever really come home again, no matter how much we hope to?’ “Safe From Yourself” is a key song on the album, for in this song Yates tackles a heartbreak and hurt with delicate grace. “I know the days are hard / The nights they are too / And you wish you could find an escape from you / But when the days are good, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” While the other songs up to this one explore a similar sentiment, the touching dedication of one to another, no matter their plight, is most deserving of deeper attention.
“Life can be a gold mine / If you’ve got a good mind,” Ken Yates intones on “Evangeline,” an empathic departure from the previous songs, but one of the standout beautiful moments on this album of songs that without a doubt, are consistently outstanding. Fingerpicked guitar underscores the tenderness of a tune both wistful and poignant. “Seems every day there’s some kind of heartbreak / Some kind of bad news that make you want to hide,” Ken sings on the album’s closing song, “Pretend We’re Alright,” which is a powerful musical exposé of the times we find ourselves in and the struggle individuals face to withstand the onslaught. A song for the days and nights that no matter who, or what, or where we find ourselves, we must carry on. The song, gorgeously composed, brings all the fear and hopes to the surface that this extraordinary album brings to us.
“Let’s pretend / We’re alright / See a show / Dance all night / Call some friends / Play along / Let’s pretend / Nothing’s wrong / Let’s pretend we’re alright / If it’s just for one night / Call some friends / Stay out late/ Let’s pretend we’re okay.” So ends this latest album from Ken Yates, lovingly produced by Jim Bryson, who was instrumental in Yates’ last album “Huntsville,” another remarkable gem of songwriting and imagination. Yates’ years on the road have brought him strength and the confidence to tackle complex themes and portraits in his newest songs, with the light touch of a master who recognizes the ever expanding breadth of his artistic gift.