Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

Author: Leon Blair

The one thing that I love seeing more than anything is artistic growth. Even if it’s just a little bit at a time, seeing a band continue to grow and evolve is delightful to watch. It’s further proof of how hard work can pay off immensely.

Nowhere has that artistic growth been more prevalent than in Georgia based Southern-Rock band, Blackberry Smoke. Don’t get me wrong, their first few albums were definitely good, and by the time they got to 2012’s The Whippoorwill they were great. It was in 2015 when they really hit their stride however. That’s when they released their absolutely incredible album Holding All The Roses that not only proved the band was growing, but also showed the band making what seemed to be their magnum opus at the time. It was really easy to see what they did right on that album as well. The instrumentation and production had a bite to it that really shined not only on the more overt rock tracks, but also on the softer moments as well. That’s coupled with the phenomenal lyricism in a genre that doesn’t really require it. Safe to say, it kicked all amounts of ass.

Now, this is a band that has taken considerable lengths of time in between to release albums, so it was a surprise to hear them announce this past summer that they were gearing up to release their newest album, Like An Arrow. Now, I had every reason to be excited. After all, the lead song “Waiting For The Thunder” seemed to not only be a continuance of the hard edge they brought to their last album, but also seemed to be the band actually doubling down on that sound. Then when I heard the next two songs released early, “Believe You Me” and “Sunrise In Texas”, I didn’t know what to expect, mostly because it seemed like they were aiming for a more diverse sonic palette this go around. So I geared up to hear their latest album, Like An Arrow with all sorts of excitement. How did it turn out?

Well, it’s definitely very good, and on some level really great. Like An Arrow might not have the same spark for me that Holding All The Roses had, but I find more to love with each listen of this album, much like Karen Jonas who I recently covered. The sonic palette is definitely more diverse on this album, and while I’d argue the writing is a shade weaker overall, it’s still extremely good for the genre it’s in (and even eats many country albums released this year for lunch). But, we have to dig a little deeper to really hit the heart of this album, so let’s get to it.

Let’s start with the one element that I think has held up extremely well – Charlie Starr himself. He’s always had the emotional range in his voice to back up a lot of his songs, and the power he carries has always done a lot for this band’s songs. There’s a certain swagger and anger that he brings to tracks like “Waiting For The Thunder” and “Workin’ For A Workin’ Man” that I really enjoyed. That same energy can be found on tracks like “Let It Burn” and the title track as well. Again, there’s not much to say in this regard. He’s got the pipes to carry a lot of this material and he naturally owns it for the most part. If there’s one song here that really feels out of place in all areas on this album however, it’s “What Comes Naturally”. Charlie just kind of sounds like he’s phoning it on this song and there’s definitely nothing interesting going on in the lyrics and instrumentation to really make this song stick.

On that note of instrumentation and production however, things get a little tough. As I mentioned before, Like An Arrow really tries to balance a diverse sonic palette on this album, and the results are mostly good. Holding All The Roses towed the line between hard rock and softer acoustic tinged songs, but this album feels like a more experimental side of their previous albums. “What Comes Naturally” tries for a New Orleans jazz vibe to alright results I suppose and “Believe You Me” is definitely this album’s “funk” moment. Now, while incorporating a song like this these days is kind of the norm these days, it really seems like it’s coming from a honest place for these guys and they pull it off pretty well. There’s also moments that double down on that more hard rock edge like “Waiting For The Thunder”, “Let It Burn”, “Sunrise In Texas”, “Workin’ For A Workin’ Man”, and especially the title track with that prominent bass guitar during the verses. Heck, even “Ain’t Gonna Wait” brings in a nice touch of fiddle and mandolin as well as a nice acoustic bedrock to make a genuine country song. Surprisingly enough it even fits in nicely with the other songs.

Where I might nitpick with the instrumentation and production however is that there are times where some songs aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. “The Good Life” seems to have almost the same melody from their song “A Woman In The Moon” from their last album while a song like “Ought To Know” just seems like it could have used a little extra push to make it great. Then you have “Running Through Time” which, given its subject matter, you’d expect it to kind of have a little bit more snarl to it than what it actually has.

On that note of lyrics and themes however, this is another tricky area to talk about. Granted, Southern-Rock isn’t a genre that’s primarily focused on lyrical content, but still, while there are many kickass moments on this album, there’s also spots where I don’t think it’s held up as well for them. I’ve already talked about “What Comes Naturally”, and really that’s the prime example of a song that doesn’t really have anything interesting going on. Then you have other songs I mentioned before such as “Running Through Time” which tries to state all the differences between young people and old people. Again, this is a song where I feel the examples of those differences could have dug deeper or even just tried to tell a story instead of relying on examples. The title track and “Ain’t Gonna Wait” both play to the same theme of conquering time instead of letting it conquer them, and while the themes are kind of played out by this point, they both have distinctive enough instrumentation and production to work for me. I already talked about how “Ought To Know” doesn’t really have a lot going in with it and really, that point still stands. Then you have “Believe You Me” which is a good song overall even if it has sort of a weird hook.

Of course, there are moments where the songwriting really shows some real nuance and texture. “The Good Life” is a song about life advice given from a father to his son that’s pretty similar to Sturgill Simpson’s “Keep It Between The Lines” from earlier this year (although the difference in production is night and day. Both are good songs though). Then you have the pissed off attitude of “Let It Burn” where the narrator keeps saying he’ll leave his hometown only to never actually do so. The comparisons to that town in question being Nashville have already been noted and really, it’s a fitting comparison for a musician living there only to never make it.

Then of course there’s moments where the songwriting gets downright complex and alluring like on “Sunrise In Texas” or “Free On The Wing” with Gregg Allman. The former song starts with some soft touches of dobro and organ before diving into a tale about what seems to be a call to appreciate what you have at home since not everyone else around the world has those same opportunities. The narrator is able to appreciate his sunrise in Texas every morning, but somewhere out there is someone who doesn’t even know where they’re going to find their next meal. At least that’s what I gathered from it. Again, it’s not stated clearly, but that’s the beauty of it. That’s all before we even get to visceral, bluesy guitar solo that’s seriously all amounts of awesome. Then there’s the latter track, “Free On The Wing” which seems to just be a tale of personal self-discovery that comes with some really great imagery. Heck, Gregg Allman even sounds great along with Charlie and the band. It’s a great end to the album.

So overall, I think I’m being a little more harsh on this album than I probably deserve to be. I admit, this album has grown on me a ton. To see the band not only take over handling the production for this album, but also pump this out in just a little over a year is amazing to me. Considering that this is the first time that the band handled the production by themselves for this, I think they did pretty damn well. Again, it’s a step down for them compared to their last album, but it’s still damn great all on its own, and there is a lot to love here. Good work gentlemen. Like An Arrow is another fine addition to the Blackberry Smoke discography.

Best Songs: “Waiting For The Thunder”, “Let It Burn”, “Sunrise In Texas”, “Workin’ For A Workin’ Man”, “Free On The Wing (w/Gregg Allman)”
Worst Song: “What Comes Naturally”

(8/10)

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