Ryan Bingham's stellar 2010 album Junky Star felt like a record he'd been striving to make since he began recording. By contrast, Tomorrowland feels like one he had to make. Bingham ditched his label and the Dead Horses, his longtime backing band. This set appears on his own Axster Bingham label; it was co-produced by the artist and Justin Stanley. Its 13 songs run the gamut, from well-written, acoustically driven Americana tunes to loud, shambolic rockers. Given the socio-political themes here, it’s clear that Bingham is pissed off as an artist and a citizen. That doesn’t always work to his advantage, however, and therein lies part of this album’s charm. Opener “Beg for Broken Legs” balances acoustic and electric guitars with a fat bassline and natural-sounding drums. Its lyrics, while reportorial in the verses, become militant in the refrain: “I ain’t gonna stand in line/Beg for bread from up off the floor….” This is what Woody Guthrie may have sounded like as a young man in the 21st century. Additional production includes layered violins, keyboards, and Mellotron, which add essential drama. The six-minute “Western Shore,” with its strummed 12-strings, mandolin, and muted electrics, eventually becomes a swirling tempest of sonic textures that work because they never succumb to the deliberate excess in the track's production and create a necessary tension -- it's one of the finest tracks here. Bingham blows it on “Guess Who’s Knocking,” a clumsy barroom hellraiser that just falls flat. “Heart of Rhythm,” with its appropriation of rockabilly and country tropes, works despite somewhat clumsy lyrics. “Rising from the Ghetto” speaks from a heart of righteousness, but its hackneyed musical structure strives too hard to convince when a simple presentation would have sufficed -- it sounds pretentious. “Flower Bomb” and “No Help from God” are quiet songs given subtle, yet unmistakable cinematic presentations -- they're beautiful in their desolation. The midtempo rocker “Never Far Behind,” with its weave of feedback, guitars, and keyboards, allows a simple melody and textural architecture to paint the protagonist’s (completely lost) voice authentically. The countrified rockabilly on “The Road I’m On,” captures Bingham at his roadhouse best and sets up a strong finish with the roots shuffle of “Never Ending Show,” and the stripped-down acoustic closer, “Too Deep to Fill.” Tomorrowland stumbles to be sure, especially in contrast with the surefootedness of Junky Star. Yet it's this record that is the sound of a songwriter exploring his limits in a restless, reckless fashion. Bingham has taken inspiration from generations of topical songwriters, combined them with the lessons learned from his other musical influences and what he’s kenned from experience, and begun to knock down the genre box that has contained him up until now -- all while speaking his mind about larger concerns than himself. Tomorrowland is the disruptive, chaotic, creative process of the artist revealed; it’s full of frustration, anger, conviction, and excitement, all worn plainly on its tattered sleeve.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek