Josh Rouse's "Under Cold Blue Stars" Revisited
On Under Cold Blue Stars, Josh Rouse’s third album, he became a truly accomplished songwriter – the kind who helps us see in the dark, illuminating the hidden corners of everyday life, and of the psyche.
As the old cliché says, time flies. It’s been 13 years since that record. As I write this, Rouse is readying a new album for release – his eighth full-length since Under Cold Blue Stars. In that time, he’s gotten divorced, remarried, become a father, and moved from Nashville to Spain. His songwriting has undergone transformations as well, becoming more finely honed and, at times, delving into disco, soul, blues, Brazilian, and Latin music. Going through his discography, it becomes apparent that the seeds of these explorations – where they really started to find fruition – can be traced back to this album.
Rouse started off in a solidly folk-rock, singer-songwriter vein. His first album, 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska, was rooted in the Midwest heartland and was steeped in Americana. Though, it was perhaps inevitable that he’d move beyond that strict sound pallet. For starters, a childhood spent bouncing around the U.S. in a military family exposed him to varied music and cultural trends. Still later, as a suburban teenager in the 1980’s, he listened to a lot of The Cure, The Smiths, and Morrissey – music stylistically at odds with the wheat fields and pickup trucks which surely dominated the landscape of the Nebraska hometown where his family spent some time. As far back as “Suburban Sweetheart”, from that first album, there was a merging of the rural and the suburban in his music and lyrics.
Rouse was living in Nashville, the traditional home of country music, when he started recording albums. Yet, he fit in more naturally with the new breed of Nashville musicians not doing country: artists like David Mead, Swan Dive, Daniel Tashian, and Lambchop. When the time came to put down tracks for Stars, he hooked up with producer Roger Moutenot, another Nashville transplant (by way of New Jersey) not especially interested in country music. Moutenot had previously worked with alt-rockers Yo La Tengo and Sleater Kinney and engineered Paula Cole’s multi-platinum This Fire (“I Don’t Want to Wait”, “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone?”).
Moutenot and a group of instrumentalists made up largely of musicians Rouse hadn’t worked with before, including Pat Sansone (soon to join Wilco), helped to greatly expand his sound. The way loops, keyboards, cello, and trumpet are used on Stars adds intriguing colors and textures to the material. Rather than a total departure from Rouse’s first two albums, though, the songs on Stars signify an evolution – a becoming, in a sense. In fact, the ending funereal horns on previous album Home’s last track “Little Know It All” link to the horns that lead into “Twilight”, Stars' first track, illustrating a continuum.
Stars has a theme, as Rouse elaborates on in the liner notes of his compilation The Best of the Rykodisc Years:
“I had a group of songs that were all relationship-based – and somewhat dark. I was married at the time, and touring and being married…it was difficult. It was a loose idea, but the album was about a musician from the Midwest in an earlier period who travels and who’s trying to support a family. It’s kind of a concept record.”
“Loose” is the key word, as nothing really sets the album in a specific time period, and the songs function fine on their own, independent of a larger narrative.
The idea of, and search for, home has been a long-running thread through much of Rouse’s work. Early on in the album, he sings “Home is where I always want to be / Home is there for you and is for me / Home is where I never want to leave”. The pull of domesticity versus the pull of the road is the central conflict on Under Cold Blue Stars, and the vehicle which propels the songs.
The light from those cold blue stars creates dark shadows – the rumors of infidelity in “Ugly Stories”, religious angst of “Christmas With Jesus”, and regret of “Summer Kitchen Ballad”. Yet, it also creates sparkle, as evidenced on three of the most memorable, hook-filled tracks of the decade – the declarations of deep love on “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” and “Feeling No Pain”, and the joy of starting a new life on “Miracle”.
The title track, however, is the centerpiece. In it, our protagonist is weighed down by adult responsibilities, which threaten to squash the idealistic child still inside of him. Playing guitar in a little town in his favorite bar, “just blowing steam”, provides an outlet of sorts, but it’s a minimal one. A light and shade combo indebted to mellow '70s soul as much as folk-rock, the song is a late night tale of unrealized dreams, so wistful, warm, and enveloping musically that it transcends any inherent melancholy.
The album ends with the quietly strummed acoustic ballad “The Whole Night Through”, a resolution of sorts and a coming to terms with where life has brought the characters in the songs, and us as listeners. The cold blue starlight has now become a warmer moonlight:
Tonight the moon shows an extra light
That shines for only us to see
And all it takes for you to smile
Is lift your eyes and breathe
Because when you start to doubt somehow it all works out
The lines become the truth
And what we need right now is somewhere to just lay down
And dream the whole night through
Rouse took some of the 1970s influences that informed Stars and ran with them on his following album, 1972. Rooted not in a story but in a specific era’s sound and style, 1972 is a concept album of a different sort that never could have happened without the journey begun on Under Cold Blue Stars.
Critically well-received, with Uncut calling the album “a towering achievement”, the Allmusic Guide lauding “a solid and satisfying set from a genuinely gifted artist” and an accolade of “quietly thrilling” from Q Magazine, Under Cold Blue Stars was on many 2002 year-end best-of lists. The album has stood the test of time due to the strengths of the songs and the musicianship. Rouse’s luminous vignettes deftly ponder the politics of relationships, growing up, and of finding one’s place in the world – subject matter which will always be relevant.