Even as a relatively young man, Ryan Bingham came across as an old soul. At age 17, he hitchhiked to Laredo to join his divorced dad, and from that point on, he spent his time drinking beer, becoming a rodeo rider and eventually making his way to France where he busked in Paris parks. Returning to Texas, he made a pair of self-released records, gained a major label deal and helped score the soundtrack to the film Crazy Heart, including co-writing the song “The Weary Kind,” which garnered him an Academy Award, a Grammy and the Americana Music Association nod for Artist of the Year as a result.
Whew. That’s pretty impressive list of accomplishments. It also sets a high bar. Fittingly then, American Love Song, Bingham’s first studio album in four years, finds him maintaining quality control. At the same time, it’s also frayed around the edges, rather loosely constructed, and just as ragged as as it is raucous. The one-two-three punch of the first three tracks—a raging “Jingle and Go,” followed by the stomp and surge of “Nothin’ Holds Me Down” and the blazing Stones-like rocker “Pontiac”—find Bingham vetting his defiance before settling down in relatively subdued terrain. Ragged ballads “Beautiful and Kind,” “What Would I’ve Become,” “Blue,” “Stones” and “America” find him croaking in a weary rasp, the ache in his voice all too palatable. An occasional blues—“Hot House” and “Got Damn Blues”—find him taking a similar stance with songs that sound of a vintage variety and far more ancient than his own 37 years.
Given the album’s ravaged feel, Bingham’s clearly got some weighty issues on his mind. The song that gives those emotions fullest attention is the one called “Wolves,” a ballad that finds Bingham retracing the torment inflicted on him by a bully when he was a kid. His memories were rekindled by the Parkland school shooting, and those that questioned the credibility of the survivors who stood up for the slain students.
Ultimately, American Love Song is a soundtrack to accompany today’s struggle for survival, a paean to those that are daring and determined despite all the odds. If it’s not Bingham’s best effort to date, and it may well be, then it’s certainly his most unflinching, and with that, his rawest record yet.