Prolific Ottawa area songwriter Brock Zeman returns with yet another strong album, hot on the heels of his 2015 masterpiece, Pulling your Sword out of the Devil’s Back, and a live album/DVD in 2016. On Pulling your Sword, he poured his heart out in song, revealing some powerful stories and emotions that were obviously very ripped from his own experience. On this, his 13th album, though, Zeman the storyteller turns his pen into a paintbrush, creating a vivid, realistic look at a traveling carnival that might have been seen in the American south during the 1930s & 40s. It’s a true concept album, entirely devoted to the theme, with songs detailing many of the events and colourful characters that would have been found at such an event.
This album was actually written over the course of a year, but a decade ago. Zeman had such high expectations for it that it took years to perfect the approach. It was even recorded once and scrapped because it just didn’t feel right, but this time, they really got it right. Zeman is backed up here by his regular band, including drummer Dylan Roberts and guitar wiz Blair Hogan. They’re joined by a bunch of great guests, filling in backing vocals, bass, accordion, fiddle, and saxophone. In keeping with the period-specific theme of the record, there isn’t a single electric instrument anywhere on the album.
So it sounds right and sounds great, but a project like this can’t succeed without vivid storytelling. Luckily, Zeman steps up with some of his finest writing yet. The record’s narrative takes us through the carnival’s arrival (“The Carnival Is Back In Town”), the setting up of the tents and attractions (“Hammer Them Stakes Down”), and then introduces us in great detail to “Stitch,” who runs the show, “The Juggler,” “Buckshot Sadie” (who “sure ain’t no lady”), Chance “the all-seeing eye” (“Dirty Little Secrets”), “Little Mac,” the mysterious characters that make up the “Freak Show,” and more.
Each character’s story is carefully crafted full of clear imagery, which makes it easy to see and hear the characters as if they were real. You feel for them as their often dark and sad stories unfold, but there’s hope and joy under the big top as well. “Little Mac” reminds us that “Even from the gutter, you can still see the stars.”
The emotional star of this show is “Drinks (the Clown),” whose sad tale is told in heart-wrenching detail. He was a “switchblade kid,” who “carved up his mean drunk daddy before hopping a train out of town.” He’s tough, but “He’d give you the shirt right off his back, and he often did.” Sadly, “One morning, in Little Rock, AK, they found him lying stiff, cold, and ghostly white.” The show didn’t go on that night, and as the strains of “Amazing Grace” weave in, we hear that he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that, “When it comes my time to go underground, be sure you lay my body facing down, so this world can kiss my ass goodbye!” And that’s exactly what his carny brethren do. There’s great irony and power in a song about a clown that’s so sad and tender.
In this day and age, where full-length albums are diced up into flash-in-the-pan singles, an album such as this requires a bit more effort and commitment, but it sure pays off. It’s a volume of stories that demands to be consumed front-to-back. This is one that will require repeated listens to truly appreciate, but each and every time, you’ll pick up some clever turn of phrase or some gorgeous melodic element, and you’ll find yourself eager to come for another visit to this carnival.
At the end of the album, and the carnival, after it’s all been put away and moved on to the next town, “the rain washed all the posters down and it wiped the smile right off the clown.” “Make believe turned back to real,” and we’re left to wonder, “what do we do now – the carnival’s left town?” What I’ll do is to enjoy this album again and again, and watch for Zeman’s next move. I don’t know how he’ll top this one, but I know for damn sure that he’ll try.