There is a tired cliché that when things are going well, it’s much harder to create interesting art and, especially, to write songs. It’s the idea that nothing is more inspirational than hard times or a broken heart or hitting rock bottom. But prolific singer-songwriter Andrew Bryant is proving that, even when you may be in a good place on the surface, there is still much to explore about the human condition.
One half of the phenomenal Southern rock band the Water Liars, Bryant has shifted his focus to his own solo work over the last few years, releasing a stellar record This is the Life in early 2015, and following up with his latest, Ain’t it Like the Cosmos. As with This is the Life, Bryant continues to hold a magnifying glass up to the American psyche on Cosmos, working out feelings of doubt about his own purpose in the world, and the working class experience – banalities, hardships, and all. Bryant has a knack for finding sweetness in melancholy, particularly when it comes to his guitar melodies. He surprises us with unexpected chords that could make you cry without fair warning. You can hear the influence an artist like Jason Molina has had on Bryant – mastering finding a little light in otherwise heavy darkness.
Bryant writes with the kind of intricate detail of a great Southern novelist, like Larry Brown. He allows us to share in his deeply personal sensory experiences – the smell of his mother’s cooking, what’s playing on the TV in the background, the sensation of a leather baseball glove on his hand. His songs about marriage, fatherhood, and working hard don’t ever feel shallow, but instead like a deeply sincere inquisition. What does it all mean and is any of it worthwhile? He’s introspective and genuinely looking for personal growth.
On “I Am Not My Father’s Son” Bryant sings of finding independence and peace of mind. Through a series of mundane, but beautifully vivid scenes, his subject gets his life together, clearing up old debts, swearing off alcohol and cigarettes, and demonstrating a little compassion. Lyrically, it’s a simple going-through-the-motions, but it carries so much weight, and you can feel the burden lighten as he digs himself out of a dark place, one small step at a time.
Elsewhere on Cosmos, Bryant crafts a swooning love song with “Night Wants the Moon.” Like This is the Life’s gorgeous “I Want You Final,” this tune will be one you keep coming back to because of the way it seems to reach directly into your chest and clutch your heart with a death grip. It’s painfully pretty.
On “Practical Man,” Bryant realizes the beauty in self-acceptance and practicality. “I’ve always been the type to ask what it all means … But the older I get/The less it matters to me,” he sings. Aging and mortality is something that comes up with some frequency on Cosmos. With “Bittersweet,” Bryant takes comfort in the security of love to lessen the blow of remembering that death is inevitable. And on “I Take Pride” he finds the currency in being proud of what he’s got, rather than pining for what he hasn’t.
Cosmos is a thoughtful study of humanity, peeling back the artificial layers we’re conditioned to build up in order to hide the vulnerability of just trying to function and survive. Life’s tough, Bryant seems to say, but we have to find the good. This is another theme across Cosmos. On “Everything in This World” he sings “just trying not to hate everything in this world,” and on “I Take Pride” he strives to “fill up [his] heart with something good for a change.” On “Pay Your Rent,” he strips it down to the cold, hard truth: “So just go to work and pay your rent/Try to love yourself and live with it.”
Bryant may not have all the answers on whether or not there’s some greater force at play, but the fact that he’s making the inquiry is what makes it feel so worthwhile to listen to his questions.