Over the course of 11 albums, Ottawa area singer songwriter Brock Zeman has built a reputation as a writer of great depth and passion, through his thoughtful, often personal songs. But he’s got a rough, rockin’ side as well. Joined on relentless tours across Western Canada and down to Texas and back by his ever-present collaborator, Blair Hogan, and often drummer Dylan Roberts, Zeman and crew can put on a powerful show that has attendees rocking as much as feeling the stories that he tells in song. He could easily be the bastard son of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, with a gravelly Tom Waits voice.
On his last couple of albums, Zeman had been experimenting with dense soundscapes that told as much of the story as his words. On the newest, “Pulling Your Sword out of the Devil’s Back,” the words and melody are at the forefront, and with a batch of songs as strong as these, they certainly should be. The melodies on the record are his strongest yet. Many are instantly memorable, and could find a home on commercial country or rock radio. If those tired formats played powerful songs like these, “Dead Man’s Shoes” could be a strong country hit, and “Little Details” or “Some Things Always Stay” would be blaring out of car windows all summer long.
Although the songs and the album sound fun, there is some deep emotion spilled out. Zeman tells some sad stories of heartbreak and love gone wrong on this one. One of the most sad and powerful songs is “10 Year Fight,” where he recounts seeing the father of a former lover, who has been struggling after “Daddy’s little girl, she’s gone wrong.” Afterward Zeman says, “I finally lost the battle of a 10 year fight. I broke a promise to myself that you would never get a song. Don’t it look like I was wrong.”
In the powerful title track Zeman speaks more than sings, “I live in a house full of ghosts that just won’t let me be. I let ‘em in myself, but now I can’t get ‘em to leave. I’m haunted by love…” and now he’s exorcising those ghosts inside of these songs. For him, writing songs is “Juggling words and chiseling lines to tell a story, to tell the truth… It’s just heart to tongue, tongue to hand, blah, blah, blah, and struggle.” Later in the song, Zeman says, “And when you really knock it out, and all the planets align, it’s like pulling your sword out of the devil’s back and saying ‘No! Not this time!’” before building to a powerful crescendo finish.
With this record, the sword has obviously come loose, and there’s no doubt that Zeman will use it to battle other ghosts, demons and devils in song. The prolific writer has already written the bulk of another album, and has a wealth of other material still awaiting recording or release. This is a mature, powerful album from a writer who truly needs to be heard. Here’s hoping that many new ears will be tuned to this one.