A little late with the words on this one and I’m going with the lame excuse of “Gmail’s search functionality is crap so I lost the email with the link to the review copy”. Regardless, Human Condition was released on 30th October and is available for you to stream, download and buy right now… and here’s what I think of it.
Black Stone Cherry are a house favourite here, but we’ve not been afraid to criticise when it’s been required (their SEC appearance a couple of years back being one), though the majority of the time they really know how to entertain and deserve the plaudits we throw their way. The one thing is that they’ve been a constant, and their sound hasn’t changed too much over the years we’ve known them. The biggest of these changes was to make things bigger, ballsier, phatter and more bombastic which they did with the likes of their cover of “War (What Is It Good For?)”.
For some, especially live, this was a step too far and it was one of the criticisms I heard from other audience members at the gig mentioned earlier. Conversely they were universally applauded for their two-set acoustic / electric tour two years earlier which was on a smaller scale. What immediately becomes apparent listening to The Human Condition is that they’ve taken a step backwards in terms of sound. Now, I don’t mean this is a negative fashion – just that a lot of the bells and whistles have been put back on their shelves and hangers, and the sound is much more stripped down. The songs, too, seem darker and more personal.
After I’d listened to the album a couple of times, I checked the promo bumph and this backed up my feelings. John Fred Young tells us:
There was a real urgency and fear of the unknown during those sessions [in March] it was a scary time. Every song on this album tells a story of the experiences we all go through – our happiness, our struggles, and how we have to adapt.
And it shows. While this is still recognisable Black Stone Cherry (there’s no mistaking Chris’ vocals, for a start), it’s slower and dirtier than ever before. Songs chug a bit more with the lyrics being given even more prominence than in the past. Opener “Ringin’ In My Head” sets up this style and it’s maintained throughout. Oftentimes the music almost dies away with just enough of a whiff to create atmosphere and rhythm… and yet every song is still steeped in blues and bourbon.
This isn’t to say that the album isn’t uplifting in places. One of the brighter tracks, “When Angels Learn To Fly”, absolutely soars and closer “Keep On Keepin’ On” does leave you on a high. And of course there’s the mandatory heart-melter, “If My Heart Had Wings”, alongside a cover. For this album we have the interesting choice of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” and, as ever, BSC have done the original credit.
However, it’s the greasy and gritty sounds of songs like “Some Stories” and “The Devil In Your Eyes” which most definitely permeate The Human Condition. Family Tree had the fun tracks like “Southern Fried Friday Night” but in these times it’s perhaps not surprising we’ve been delivered an album with a bit more of a serious overtone. The contrast between these two releases is stark and appropriate for 2020, and the change in tone is welcome. I don’t know if the band got lucky or if the shift was deliberate, but I think it fits perfectly with the way things are right now.
Every band needs to change a little as time goes on and reflect themselves in their music. Black Stone Cherry have done themselves justice with The Human Condition, and I personally rank it as their best release since Magic Mountain.
Header image by Mike Rodway