Brian Hugh O’Neill – Free World (2010)

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by Nick DeRiso

New York City-based Brian Hugh O’Neill can’t get away from hard truths on Free World. “The light’s not very kind in this place,” O’Neill sings in the anthematic “Careful What You Want.” “There’s a shadow moving over your face.” That shadow is moving, really, over the whole record, as O’Neill’s characters toss and turn through a very long night.

There are repeated themes: Girls leave, or else they are run off. Life deals us a bad hand, or else cheats a few extra cards up its sleeve. Free World doesn’t seek to solve these very adult realizations, so much as illustrate how we might sort through them along the way.

O’Neill does that with a writerly specificity that resonates long after the songs are over: “Through the rain, the vineyards, and the flashing yellow lights, the only sound was the tapping of the wipers on the windshield,” he recalls, during a slow drive after the end of a tumultuous relationship. “Moving on is easier said than done.”

“Veteran’s Day” explores a mannered, soldier’s rhythm, like stark poetry, as O’Neill’s sad and bereft character searches for a faraway girl. Guest guitarist Thor Fields’ solo, angular and all edge, arrives like an angry internal rebuke, but even that can’t break the spell for this lonesome traveler: “It’s November again,” O’Neill sings, “and I’m counting the days, the names and the faces that have faded away.”

He tries with an unrepentant, almost violent insistence to convince himself of his version of events on “Patty Loved Me.” Alas, she, too, is but a memory.

An unflinching reverie can be found on the harmonium-driven “Warhol, Nixon and Abbie Hoffman,” as O’Neill fondly remembers how the late yippie-protester “laughed in the face of their lies, as he was dying inside.” About Nixon, O’Neill says: “So far to fall, the earth takes us all.” Then, there’s Warhol: “I have to admit he was right about the 15 minutes.” A reflective moment about the 1970s perhaps inevitably leads O’Neill to larger questions about this world’s more difficult turns. “It’s starting to bother me; I see it almost every day,” O’Neill sings. “First, they promise you everything then they take it away.”

There are times during Free World where O’Neill makes a determined attempt to lift himself up from the gloamy malaise that’s all around.

The album-opening “It’s A Free World” blasts off with a cacophony of guitar, organ and drum before settling into a singer-songwriter strum as O’Neill makes a clarion call for believing in something, even in the face of dizzying odds.

O’Neill similarly tries to buck himself up on “Lucky Days,” a heartfelt duet with Tracy Sallows. It might be, as O’Neill sings, like taking a swing at the moon but he’s not giving up on the dream of setting things straight. And he’s not giving in to regret. “I’ve got a feeling,” he sings, “that I am just a roll away from when my number finally comes in.”

He indulges in brief daydreams about getting away from it all, about fully exploring the gifts of freedom, on “Almost Anything,” and on the title track. But heading off to Paris, or buying that long-hoped-for piece of country heaven, those are only moments in time. The things that pain us can’t be obscured forever by these fleeting distractions.

That sense of impending fate is only underscored by the following track, “Rise – September 12, 2001,” which begins with a requiem’s keyboard moan and the first responders’ searing red wail. O’Neill eventually finds comfort, soon after the skies have fallen, alone with a loved one, just holding on tight.

Still, even the gentle romanticism of the countrified rocker “Mara” is betrayed by a stinging resignation to the reality of his plight: He’s in for another evening spent apart, mulling over something that’s long been lost.

There’s a final requiem for truth on “Goodnight, America,” and then a hidden bonus track about the historical figure “Wallace Stevens,” featuring an alluring turn by flutist Brent Stanton. Yet there’s no getting away from the bleak disquietude surrounding Free World.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be disturbing, this unyielding realism, but maybe there’s nothing more appropriate for these often dark times.

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