Opening with a brief stacked choral and minimal piano number like “Dogs Can’t Play Cards” displays a certain amount of confidence. Do Big Top Heartbreak deserve this level of self-asurdness on a debut album? Is this even a debut album? To be honest I don’t know, because sometimes it’s just fun to plunge yourself into a new release without any pre-existing assumptions. Are Big Top Heartbreak a band? Are they effectively a solo act? Who cares? I love each of the forty five seconds of “Dogs Can’t Play Cards”, and I just hope that the rest of Deadbeat Ballads lives up to it.
Opening with some beautiful piano work and an impassioned vocal that drips pathos, “My 8th Birthday” may be one of the finest songs I’ve heard in 2016, and that’s before we get to the chorus during which the song’s narrator recounts his mother bad-mouthing his father. With its smart arrangement, subtle horn backing, monster chorus, references to pork pies and a first kiss, “My 8th Birthday” isn’t in any danger of topping the charts, but its potent enough to break the heart of any of us with an appreciation of smart lyrics and bitter sweet love.
“Champions of the World” was one of the tracks released to preview Deadbeat Ballads. With its sinister guitar line topped with an excitable organ, its pumping psyche-pop captures the excitement and optimism of new love. It’s a song that hints at dark clouds gathering around, however once again our narrator leaves us in no doubt that he and his love intend to just keep their foot down on the accelerator in the hope of outrunning the bad weather.
The slightly sinister vibe is maintained with the next track, but given that it is titled “Good News for Bad People”, you might have expected that anyway. The voice of Big Top Heartbreak main man Scott Lavene repeatedly fractures with emotion throughout, and the discordant guitar strums and icy piano create a suitably uneasy feeling throughout. The dark clouds are then chased away with “Glory in These Hills”, a considerably more optimistic sounding song, a feeling at odds with the lyrical contact, which sees our narrator doing the walk of shame home from a night he can barely remember and resolving to act on the big plans that had previously seemed just out of reach. It’s stirring stuff, until you start to get the impression that this individual has probably resolved to do this so regularly in the past, that maybe, just maybe, the dream is utterly out of reach and is never really going to happen. But hell, the dream is the only thing keeping our hero going and one day, he’ll make his mother proud.
“Christmas in the Asylum” has a title which seems to offer much more than it can deliver, and while it’s actually a beautifully written, recorded and delivered tune, it’s one of those offbeat Christmas songs that aspires to enter the public consciousness in the same way that The Pogues’ “Fairy Tale of New York”. Who knows, in years to come maybe it will, but the issue is, for now, it just sounds like a well-intentioned attempt to write a song which sounds like another, better known song, by an act that really should know better. I dunno, I sort of like it, but whether it retains its charms over time, I really can’t predict right now.
“My Breath Killed the Roses” is much more like it and a confirmation of what Big Top Heartbreak do best. With it’s soulful strings, propulsive drums and determined vocals, it’s a song that those of us who have lived a variable life can relate to, and you have to wonder why more songwriters don’t tap into the ‘mature adult who has long abandoned the over-optimistic life goals of their youth, and just hopes they can live their life without annoying too many people’ market.
The sense of resignation drips from “The Happiest Boy in Town”, but in some ways it’s also the most optimistic of offerings on the album. There’s a sense of yearning and reaching for a better life than the one dealt out to us. Not all of us will make it, but some of us will, and you get the feeling that the happiest boy in town will be among them.
The pace quickens with “High Class”, a song of mismatched lovers. Laverne gamely makes the best of it, but its nothing that hasn’t been done many dozens of times before, and given the heights that Big Top Heartbreak prove they are capable of elsewhere on Deadbeat Ballads, it’s a little disappointing and, lyrically at least, the weakest track on the album.
Deadbeat Ballads closes on a high with “Your Love Keeps Me Going”. Again, the sentiment of the song isn’t anything that hasn’t been delivered countless times before by countless other acts, but Big Top Heartbreak deliver “Your Love Keeps Me Going” with a rare redemptive power. It’s the type of song which makes you listen to the album from the beginning, and that’s a rare trick to pull off these days.
After repeated listens, I still can’t really figure out what kind of audience Big Top Heartbreak hope they will find with Deadbeat Ballads. Lyrically, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in a while, and the poppy psyche ballads dotted throughout deserve to find a receptive audience. The thing is, it’s perhaps just a little too quirky to find an audience that will allow them to cross over to the mainstream. Then again, I get a feeling that Laverne and his bandmates would be happy studiously avoiding the such a crossover, especially when you consider the poisonous soup that makes up mainstream music these days. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Deadbeat Ballads becomes a word of mouth success, because believe me, Big Top Heartbreak genuinely deserve to be celebrated as far and as wide as possible.