Cory Branan is like a particular breed of bad boyfriend — never around when you need him, wildly inconsistent with his emotions, arrogant, vulnerable, quixotic, brilliant and, of course, ultimately irresistible. We've been waiting six long years for him to finally show his smirking face again, and fortunately the spell still holds. Mutt, released by Bloodshot Records in May, is every bit as beguiling, sweet and strange as its predecessors. Branan might be hard to pin down, but the chase is a whole lot of fun.
The relentlessly touring troubadour recently moved back to Nashville after a few years traipsing around the Southeast — Arkansas, Austin, Mississippi — and now that he's back in Music City, he's finally on a label that seems to understand what he does.
"I was cutting [Mutt] for a while, and then my father was ill," says Branan via Skype from Hamburg, Germany. "I was home a lot. I had to save up money. And once it was all done and mastered, I spent a year shopping it. I had trouble finding the right label. I was really proud of the record, and had worked really hard on it and didn't just want to put it out myself."
Mutt opens with "Ballad of a Bad Man," a late-night come-on with a vintage-rock riff, Springsteen-esque piano and all. Branan has been playing this barnburner, apparently inspired by his suspect reputation during his Memphis days, for years. He sings with a particularly mischievous edge as he pre-empts his haters: "Let me be the first to curse my name into the ground," promising that, even though he's a "bad man," a "bad man would do you good." Like the object of his pitch, he's hoping listeners choose a smile over a smack across the cheek, especially when he sings, "Slip off what you don't want ripped off."
First we get the clever bastard, then the sensitive genius. The second track, "The Corner," is the heart of this album, a tenderly performed acoustic ode to life on the road. It's beautiful and sad, and Branan lets his voice reach odd, ugly places — a tremendous combination. When he croaks the final line, you can hear the weariness of a thousand poorly attended shows.
"My voice has gotten shot to hell over the years, and to me it just makes it more interesting," says Branan. "When I open my mouth, I'm not always sure what's gonna come out."
The rest of Mutt continues in that somewhat schizophrenic vein, from the moody romanticism of "Freefall" to the rollicking Americana of "Karen's Song" to the John Mellencamp-inspired nostalgia trip "Yesterday." As always, there are tremendous lyrical moments. On "Hold Me Down," a song about an ex-lover, Branan sings, "It's like raining on the ocean every time you send your best / It feels like someone opening an umbrella in my chest." And on "Survivor Blues," he turns the old cliché on its head, asserting, "They say it'll make you stronger, but first you gotta survive / What didn't kill you will make you wish you died."
In a strange move — especially for a guy with six years' worth of songs to choose from — "Survivor Blues" appears twice on Mutt. First as a hard-driving rock number, then in a melancholy "after hours" incarnation. It's a surprisingly powerful exercise, as the song's message transforms from irony and bluster to heartache and defeat. Branan has said this album is full of mirrors, and that pair of tracks is the most obvious example.
"A lot of the songs have mirror songs," says Branan. "It's the same situation with different outcomes. Like with 'Darken My Door' sex is healing, and ['Freefall'] is about empty, meaningless encounters. I noticed a theme with a lot of songs that I had, even if they were written at different times."
Now that he has a record deal and a renewed commitment to his erstwhile home base, Branan promises that we won't have to wait another six years for his follow-up. We shall see. Bad boyfriends always say they'll change. On "Freefall," Branan sings, "I've been drinking with those three-chord girls / Everybody knows exactly how they go." That has never been his problem.