Having already made a strong case for himself as one of the finest Southern songwriters as long ago as the mid-1970s, Ray Wylie Hubbard, like so many of his contemporaries, might have lost his ability to surprise somewhere along his meandering, hard-living path. But A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), his first album since 2006's terrific Snake Farm, is nonetheless an astonishing work of contemporary observations and cockeyed poetry. It also happens to be one hell of a greasy rock record, steeped equally in Muddy Waters's chord progressions and in whiskey-drenched conventions of country and blues songwriting. At turns gritty, sloppy, and soulful, Enlightenment is perhaps the perfect antidote to the staid Americana scene.
Whether he's drawing inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" for the haunted title track or chanting the title of "Every Day Is the Day of the Dead" like an invocation of evil, Hubbard never flinches from difficult emotional terrain. Invoking Biblical mythology for the stark album closer "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and a hazy, drugged out fugue state on "Opium," he challenges even the most guarded sense of optimism about the current state of the world. But rather than merely dismissing that rose-colored vision as naïve, Hubbard explores the reasons why it is fundamentally necessary to hold on to hope on "Horsemen" and the standout gospel number "Whoop and Hollar." It's the depth of thought and experience that gives Hubbard's songwriting such power and which makes Enlightenment such a thematically dense work.
That Hubbard has also mastered the economy of country and blues conventions keeps the focus on his messages, allowing him to pack tremendously loaded statements (such as insisting that Muddy Waters is as deep as William Blake on "Down Home Country Blues") into just a single line. The lived-in wisdom is matched by the first-rate blues performances, with Hubbard turning in a phenomenal bottleneck slide break on "Wasp's Nest" and percussionist Rich Richards banging away on whatever's on hand on the cacophonous "Pots and Pans." The rough-hewn aesthetic is perfectly suited to Hubbard's ragged but forceful voice and gives further heft to his narratives and musings. Powerful and smart above all else, Enlightenment may just be Hubbard's finest record, and it's certainly the new decade's first essential album.