“Aerosol Ball,” the opening track off the newest album by roots-revival band The Felice Brothers, doesn’t sound like it should be the introduction to an LP called Life in the Dark. An upbeat and fast-paced song with the lyrics “She’s such a special girl/she’s been around the world” as the main focus ought to have no place opening an album with such an ominous title. That is, until you listen outside of the chorus, and are brought into the world that surrounds that special girl — a world full of drug abuse and near-poverty: the world that The Felice Brothers and their music live in. That being said, it’s not a sad song by any means. Despite the life this girl may live, she’s portrayed as happy — dancing to Elvis, she allows herself to enjoy the things one might take for granted in another circumstance.
This is something The Felice Brothers have specialized in since their first release ten years ago — treating what anyone who was raised in a major metropolitan area would view as the more unpleasant side of life in rural America as fact, rather than a mechanism for pity or exploitative call for social change. Their excruciating honesty hasn’t been lost since then, with songs such as “Jack at the Asylum” off of the new album highlighting the very real problems faced by the people we allow ourselves not to think about — this song in particular addressing the challenges faced by those who aren’t able to afford care for their own mental health.
Don’t interpret this as the album being utterly inaccessible, though. “Sell the House,” the closing track, is the heartbreaking lament of a father in the process of being separated from his wife and children after a divorce, while the protagonist in “Triumph ‘73” discusses his stance as “Just another fool in the dreaded art of love,” a position which anyone over the age of 16 can relate. Although the situations the band describes may not be explicitly what the listener has experienced (not everyone owns a ‘73 Triumph, that’s for sure), it doesn’t mean they’re not relatable. This is another strength The Felice Brothers hold — the specific situations they describe do not limit or confine the interpretation of their lyrics, allowing for them to be personal to both the songwriter and the listener.
The track “Plunder” deserves a special mention here, as it’s possibly the most genuinely fun song on the album, and the one that falls most in the vein of The Felice Brothers’ past, more popular music. That’s not an accusation of fan service (“Frankie’s Gun,” arguably the band’s most popular song to date, follows the events leading up to the death of a drug mule, from his own perspective) but rather a compliment, as the song seems more personal to its performers than any other song on the album. It’s not a cry for help, nor is it a grievance about lost love. If you follow the lyrics, they do discuss being sent to a mental hospital and witnessing a girlfriend cheat, but they reflect on these issues in a way that is purely observational, almost detached but completely without judgment. References within the song to a fiddle and a roller rink make it clear that this song isn’t exactly taking place in a major city. It’s taking place in the Catskills, the place The Felice Brothers have called home throughout their entire careers.
It’s understandable, as you read this on your laptop, desktop, iPad, iPhone, that you would feel out of touch with the world The Felice Brothers come from. Rural America, whether it be in their home of the Catskills, the South or the farmlands of the Dakotas, is different. It has its own culture, one we can’t peer into on any of the devices that connect us to the rest of the world. The internet comes at such a low speed there, it’s almost not worth using, if the internet reaches these areas at all. Despite their growing success, The Felice Brothers continue to be a lens into this world. They represent a largely silent portion of the American population that is often dismissed or forgotten about because they’re not given an outlet to vocalize their struggles. They live their lives in the dark.
Life in the Dark is out tomorrow June 24. In the meantime, you can preorder a digital copy here.