I don’t think I’ve used the word ‘astonishing’ in relation to an album in a long time. But the new Ryan Bingham album, Junky Star (Lost Highway), merits that kind of acclaim. Another thing that I never do is compare any songwriter to Bob Dylan. But the inescapable fact is that Bingham may be the songwriter who finally justifies the “new Dylan” tag that has cursed so many talented songwriters in the past. It’s not just the songs, which are powerful in their own right, but the way that they’re delivered. Bingham is possessed on a raspy, heartbroken voice that provides every ounce of world-weary despair that the occasion calls for.
Despite his two previous albums, if you’ve heard Ryan Bingham it’s probably by way of his Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning song “The Weary Kind,” which stood out in last year’s film “Crazy Heart.” The hit song has been added onto the end of Junky Star, and as great as it is, it somehow misses the immediacy that characterizes the rest of the album. That’s probably the result of a slightly more polished, mainstream production than the rest of the songs, but I am hardly going to complain about such an well-crafted song being included here. What is truly impressive is that Bingham has put aside suggestions that he turn to a more commercial sound in the wake of his success. “At the end of the day, there’s not a chance in hell I could do that. It made me sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I couldn’t get up in front of people and play a bunch of stuff that didn’t mean anything to me,” he says.
Nowhere is Bingham’s determination to dig for the deeper truths on display more than it is in the song “Depression.” It is the kind of populist songwriting that has been in short supply since the days of Woody Guthrie. Bingham takes a look around at the current social climate and reflects on the things that are really important in these desperate, dangerous times. The album’s title track is a powerful murder ballad that opens with the singer shooting dead a man who “come to shake my hand and rob me of my farm.” And on “Hallelujah” the singer himself is shot dead in an act of senseless violence by a man who he thinks is a friend, but in reality is “just another stranger.”
Don’t get me wrong, Ryan Bingham doesn’t sound like Bob Dylan, or anyone else. He’s a complete original, and one who has stepped fearlessly out onto the high wire on a windy day. Junky Star is certainly one of the most compelling albums of 2010.
Breaking news: Ryan Bingham was named Artist of the Year at last night’s Americana Awards in Nashville.