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Running Naked Through the Fields–Withered Hand’s “New Gods”

Withered Hand
New Gods

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Songs can sneak up on you. They’ll lull you into some lazy musical neighborhood, and then jump out and abscond with you on an adventure that couldn’t possibly have been guessed at. Singer/songwriter Dan Willson, better known as Withered Hand, is pretty good at that. The strongest tracks on his second full-length New Gods begin in somewhat benign places before grabbing you by the ear and dragging you off, maybe pummeling you a bit for fun on the way.

The Edinburgh based troubadour garnered some much deserved critical acclaim for his first effort, Good News. In the five years since, he has been touring and writing but recordings have been sparse. Willson has been opting to build momentum on the road rather than in the studio. And it would seem to have paid off. New Gods runs the folk gamut, from the sickly sweet, harmonica painted “Life of Doubt” to the open eyed exuberance of “Heart Heart,” all of it held together by Willson’s oddly compelling voice and visceral lyrics.

The album opens with one of those songs referenced in the first paragraph, “Horseshoe.” It starts with just a guitar and violin. “Here I go, pigeon toed to the feather weight fight / And just before they knocked me down…” Which is just when the drums and distorted guitar kick in to throw some haymakers. And, though the song has been plenty built up by the time the hook comes around, when it does it’s a surprisingly robust knock-out combination. “We could kill our friends,” Willson belts out, “We could sing a song that never ends again.” The transitions are abrupt, but fulfilling. Same with “California,” the fifth track on New Gods. The picked chords and shaky vocals of the first verse give way to a towering, organ buttressed cathedral of a chorus. But there are also some simple and incredibly pretty melodies here. The title track is a perfect example. “New Gods” is a banjo and horn infused summer-evening-cocktail of a song. Just sit down on the patio and enjoy it. “I counted lucky stars / Above a field in Switzerland.” This gorgeous tune is followed immediately by “Heart Heart,” the true knock-out punch. [Author’s note: the linked song is not the album version.] “Heart heart listen to your heart / And I listen to my heart / And all I hear is my body dying / Cruel world.” A jaded sentiment, yes, but Willson has clothed it in such rich musical exuberance that it’s hard not to find it weirdly inspiring. This song comes at you very suddenly. And fast. Just give it thirty seconds and try not to go sprinting out the door, ripping your clothes off. “Nothing can bring me down, cruel world.” By the end of this three minute nine second mad dash, we know that’s the truth.


Long awaited though this record might be, it seems Willson has been using that time to hone his songwriting craft. To the point where Withered Hand seems like a misnomer. New Gods is quick and powerful and deft. As Willson writes in the title track: “We can do it ok / Or we can do it right.”