The follow-up to 2014's spirited Heal, Hard Love finds Strand of Oaks mastermind Tim Showalter once again dialing back on the confessional folk-rock of his earlier outings, and unleashing a full-on garage/basement-blasted, dub-kissed, acid rock exposé. Raw in both tone and tenor, the nine-track set uses the hedonism of life on the road and its effects on relationships back home as its narrative footing, and in doing so, delivers the group's most soul-baring and ramshackle set to date. The notion that musicians are hardly paragons of decency is nothing new, but Showalter doesn't shy away from extrapolating on the fact that there are as many good times to be had on the rock & roll merry-go-round as there are mishaps. Hard Love spends the majority of its just over 40-minute running time trying to find some equilibrium between the two camps. The propulsive and knowingly nostalgic "Radio Kids" revels in the joy of both making and ingesting music, while the slow-build, Americana-laced title track and the pensive piano ballad "Cry" wrestle with the impermanence of life and the often overwhelming heft of love. Showalter and producer Nicolas Vernhes find a nice balance between the rawness of the production and the meatiness of its execution, and allow the classic rock underpinnings that were so prevalent on Heal to continue to rise to the forefront. Late album highlights "Rest of It" and "Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother," the former a fiery Velvets/Brian Jonestown Massacre-inspired bar-burner and the latter an epic psych-rock jam about the near death of Showalter's brother, bring some swagger to the proceedings, but lyrically they exist in the same realm of existential angst and strident reflection as everything that preceded them. Hard Love is an aptly named salute to the myriad complexities of intimacy, the nature of comeuppance, and the difficulties of navigating forward in the cruel wake of youth.
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AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger