Tom Levin took a huge step back into the spotlight, after struggling for years through a bad record deal, with 2011’s Tooth and Claw. This new album consolidates everything that once made him a best-new-artist phenom – even as Them Feet explores new musical complexities.
The title track, for instance, opens with a lean, insistent riff – but whatever menace that telegraphs is soon undercut by Levin’s typically heartfelt, observational writing style. Even as a Adam Borjesson’s fluttering banjo and Kalle Persson’s stomping cadence join the proceedings, Levin continues working against the grain: “Them Feet” sounds like a prison work song, but plays out as a parable about giving your whole heart to something, through thick and thin.
He’s certainly seen both since earning Male Artist of the Year honors from in the New Music Weekly Awards back in 2007 – only to see the guy who signed him quit after joining a label in Levin’s home country of Sweden. He labored under that deal for three long years before finally emerging again as an indie artist in 2011. Since, he’s released Tooth and Claw, been the only international performer invited to New Orleans’ Cutting Edge Festival and is preparing to release not one but two albums in 2014 – beginning with the impressively layered, always involving Them Feet, due on January 29, 2014.
The Aimee Bobruk co-written “I Raise My Flag,” one of only three songs here not credited to Levin alone, has a more muscular, modern feel – though Levin’s sharp eye for the particular (be that turn of phrase, or moment in time) remains the thread that connects everything here. As the track plays out, Levin – who co-produces with Dark Lama – builds a tornadic setting for this song of sweet surrender. “Pull Yourself Together” employs a lean, Bo Diddle-inspired rhythm, as Levin settles into a dark, gravelly vocal. He sounds both annoyed, and a little bemused, by his loveable loser of a subject. Anders Borjesson’s honking saxophone, again working in dichotomy, gives the song a honky-tonk propulsion.
“As Long as It’s Good,” a song about taking things as they come, returns to the shotgun-shack musical danger of the album opener, fired along by a tough backbeat from Persson, who also mixed and mastered Them Feet. “Once I Almost Killed a Horse,” in which Levin explores an innocent’s dumb-luck naivety and the way he stumbles toward something good, anyway. All of it, every mistake along the way, seemed to lead to his one true love. Levin’s vocal, so filled with hope and love, perfectly captures the lingering sense of wonder surrounding this happy turn of events.
“Company Man,” with its stuttering, off-kilter structure and brittle approach with the lyric, arrives then like a punch in the middle of the chest – in the same way that any every-day reverie is broken by bad news, from the news or the mail or the phone. Levin ultimately finds a gospel-inflected kind of redemption, but it’s a rocky journey.
“June’s Memory Lane,” a contemplative examination of the things that age takes from us, opens up a lonesome landscape filled with things forgotten. A similar quietude surrounds “Father to a Son” – the third song, after “I Raise My Flag” and “Pull Yourself Together,” co-written by Levin with Brian Hobbs. Together, the try to make sense of the differences that can tear a child apart from a parent, and the love that can bridge those differences over time.
“King Neptune” finishes Them Feet with an anthem’s broad brush stroke, as Levin stirs in sweeping mythical touchstones – even while staying true to the album’s consistently involving small-scale narrative focus. This isn’t the story of a conquering hero, but of a very personal love that becomes legendary in someone’s heart.