Despite Allison Moorer having been married and just a couple months away from giving birth to her first child at the time of its release, Crows was haunted by the specters of death and heartbreak. Musically, the album suggested less domestic bliss than an intriguing simulacrum of it, and lyrically even hedging that interpretation. Five years later, the country singer is separated from rock-star husband Steve Earle, pending a long-in-the-works divorce, and faces an autism diagnosis for her four-year-old son.
One might expect Moorer to dive deeper into the hazy emotional shades and watercolor textures of her last album, but the optimistically titled Down to Believing comes on like a barnstormer: Lead single “Like It Used to Be” (as in, “it ain’t ever gonna be…”) is a turned page, a brushing off of past losses and a wide-armed embrace of her newfound freedoms. “It’s just the way the tilt-a-whirl turns/It’s just the way the barricades burn,” Moorer growls over guitarist/producer Kenny Greenberg’s ferocious riffs, laying the foundation for a break-up album that finds strength in acceptance.
The lean opening track is just about as streamlined and raucous as this album gets, but even slower numbers like “Thunderstorm Hurricane” and the piano ballad “If I Were Stronger” favor cathartic bursts of energy rather than the weeping-over-my-guitar fare one frequently gets from singer-songwriters mining this sort of territory. The former simmers around a stark acoustic guitar, leaving room in the unsettling mix to hear fingers squeak along the fret board, while Moorer summons minimalist but evocative imagery from her pen: “Dark cloud hanging overhead/Sky is gray, blue, and red.” Eventually the track erupts, thunderously, with another searing lead from Greenberg and a torrent of careening strings. Then, in just under three minutes, it’s over.
The taut and engaging first half of Down to Believing juxtaposes formidable country-rock like “I Lost My Crystal Ball” and the garage-rock-at-heart “Tear Me Apart” against more poised and controlled expressions of emotional unrest. The standout of these is the gorgeous title track, which forgoes any real sense of momentum in favor of dwelling on Moorer’s telling of a love that burned too brightly too fast: “Coming down wasn’t easy, but we tried our best/Said we used it up and didn’t put any back/Now you look so surprised ’cause there ain’t none left/Now we’re just empty-hearted and sad.”
Down to Believing’s second half doesn’t always live up to the standard of poetic lyrics or dynamic pacing Moorer sets initially here or on the best of her past releases—including Crows and 2000’s The Hardest Part, which similarly covered the dissolution of a marriage (the tragic murder-suicide of her parents). “Blood,” a folky lilt dedicated to the relationship Moorer shares with her sister, Shelby Lynne, stumbles through a couple hokey lines (“It don’t matter where you been/Through the thick and the thin), and “Back of My Mind” pairs its muscular four-on-the-floor thump with a limp conceit (“There’s a place where you live,” she withholds coyly, the track’s title not offering much of a punchline).
Prefaced by a little studio chatter and feedback, “Mama Let the Wolf In” suddenly launches into the grimiest rocker Moorer’s ever recorded, stretching her vocal like a seasoned blues howler. The song expresses the flood of emotions she felt in the wake of her son’s autism diagnosis, chiefly guilt and anger. Another unexpected success comes in the form of Down to Believing’s sole cover, of John Fogerty’s 1971 ubiquitous classic “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” Moorer interprets the song so faithfully that it first seems like not much more than a space-filler, but the track gains force in light of Moorer’s separation from Earle. In taking on a male-centric rock standard that’s been credited as a Vietnam protest song (Forgerty himself admitted it was just about being depressed by fame), and re-appropriating it for the perspective of a woman coping with a separation, Moorer fashions a subtle kiss-off for her ex—and simultaneously brings her album’s weather-centric imagery full circle.