Two Gallants made its name the hard way, scrapping at house parties and on street corners, gaining notice through the vigorous vitality of their live act. A two-piece with the sound of a full band, the duo overcame the rickety constructs of their Americana-obsessed sound through sheer energetic devotion to those tropes, pounding out songs too quick and too smart to reveal streaks of inherent moldiness.
Such earnestness is still present on We Live on Cliffs, lead singer Adam Haworth Stephens’s solo debut, but it has unfortunately been diverted in the wrong direction. The focus here is crystalline, immaculately styled country—slow, pretty songs fleshed out by female backing vocals. At worst, it’s an album full of half-cocked Ryan Adams impressions, digging into an antiseptic style that sounds cheesy even when Adams attempts it.
Stephens’s wit, which in the past elevated and vivified material that might have otherwise played as stuffy retread, is thankfully still in place. But it isn’t given much space to exhibit itself. These songs are less concerned with rollicking tribute or mischief as they are with distinctly nailing a sound, the kind of clean-scrubbed alt-country that has grown less interesting as it has become less novel. We Live on Cliffs is a sharp, well-crafted effort, but it’s hard to find much of interest in such a bloodless collection of pinched, tightly paced songs.
This speaks to the same problems that began to curdle Stephens’s band on their last two albums, as the formula of swift takes on traditional sounds began to run out of permutations. At their best, the band has seemed like a more volatile, less aware variation of Bob Dylan’s country-western period, mining Americana veins for their broad canvases and pulp potential. The same inclinations are here, the boyish preoccupation with hangmen’s nooses and the wrong side of the law, but the feel is more Self Portrait than New Morning, with a greater interest in inhabiting source material than reinterpreting it.
Such a misguided fixation doesn’t necessarily diminish the quality of a song like “Angelina,” which is catchy and workable, employing the same kind of erudite sing-along chorus found on many of Two Gallants’s best songs. But an album full of this kind of material, streaked with rubbed-on grit and crocodile tears, seems far too perfunctory for such a capable songwriter.