Over the last 20 years, Josh Rouse has quietly put together a formidable run of albums, his oeuvre ranging from quiet introspection to songs with choruses the size of his native Nebraska.
Though the music has remained largely based around Rouse’s melodic guitar sounds, there have been a few unexpected side steps along the way, including a 1999 E.P. (Chester) with Lambchop main man Kurt Wagner and the 2010 half Spanish, half English language album El Turista, in homage to his adopted home of Valencia. There was also the lovely, Summery E.P. made with his wife, Paz Suay, under the self-explanatory name She’s Spanish, I’m American.
Love In The Modern Age, then, represents Rouse’s biggest sea change yet, as it comes brimming with 80s sophistipop sounds, and is largely keyboard-led. Opener ‘Salton Sea’ finds Rouse in familiar storyteller mode, but through a filter of subtly vocodered vocals, a deliciously rumbling bass line, distant electric guitar and vintage synth lines. ‘Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives’, meanwhile, is probably the most traditional Rouse song to feature – it could have come from 2013’s The Happiness Waltz, and is full of Rouse’s trademark warmth and humanity, apparently made up of observations about the ‘ordinary people’ who are his fellow Valencians.
A strong start sees the bar raised higher still on the title track, a subtle, (initially) quietly sung piece that flows like The Blue Nile, or Song-era It’s Immaterial, and builds and builds, bringing in Songs From The Big Chair saxophones and wonderful female backing vocals. Rouse admits that the six months spent on this album is the longest period spent on any record in his catalogue, and indeed it sounds lush and expensive. It sounds huge.
Another curve ball comes in the shape of ultra-catchy should-be-mega-hit ‘Businessman’, a close cousin perhaps of Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Big Love’ if it had had backing vocals from Prefab Sprout‘s Wendy Smith. There’s more beautifully realised lyrics sung in Rouse’s distinctive tone, the loneliness of the travelling subject of the song might seem odd fuel for a really commercial track, but it works perfectly.
Over the years, Rouse has exercised a very tight quality control. He is prolific, but he always puts out a nine or ten track record and is seemingly never tempted to flesh it out with filler – that again is the case here with a very focussed and coherent set of songs.
The album’s secret weapon is the penultimate track ‘Hugs and Kisses’, which arguably sounds like the weakest track on first impressions but actually could be the best here. The vocals are delivered almost (deliberately) off key, which then floors the listener when subtle but glorious backing vocals kick in during the chorus to raise the song to another level.
Elsewhere, ‘Tropic Moon’ is a beautiful track, his mention of ‘sleeping under stars’ recalling early album Under Cold Blue Stars. When Rouse says that he is “right where he wants to be”, no-one would doubt him. ‘I’m Your Man’ is potentially a playful nod to Leonard Cohen, although is an upbeat, sunny song and as such quite far removed from the style of the sadly departed legend.
When touching closer ‘There Was A Time’ disappears over the horizon, the instinct is just to press ‘play’ / replace the stylus immediately back at the start of ‘Salton Sea’, such is the draw of this record. In a brilliant two-decade career of many considerable highs, Love In the Modern Age sits right up there with the best of Josh Rouse’s work. The change in direction is wholly successful and will hopefully be embraced by long time Josh fans; he manages to both sound markedly different and completely retain all the things that are great about him. The best album of 2018 so far in this writer’s opinion.
Love In The Modern Age is released by Yep Roc Records on 13th April 2018.