A cult hero on the Americana scene for a full decade now, Chris Knight has drawn favorable comparisons to the likes of Steve Earle, John Prine and Bruce Springsteen. While it’s really saying something that Knight has often lived up to those comparisons, he hasn’t necessarily been able to put together a complete album with the kind of scope and vision of Springsteen’s Nebraska or Earle’s I Feel Alright. His sixth album, Heart of Stone, changes that. Here, Knight’s stunning narratives of the hardships of working-class life don’t just function as remarkable standalone stories as they have on his previous records; instead, there’s a real coherence and a definite focus on a common theme of keeping one’s head, no matter how hard times may get. The threat of an economic downturn, Knight argues on “Hell Ain’t Half Full,” is not a valid excuse for cooking meth in a tub in the basement, while the title track finds its narrator condemning his father for abandoning his family.
A cursory reading of his songs might find them one-note and judgmental, but what elevates Knight’s songwriting above that of nearly all of his contemporaries in alt-country is the genuine emotional complexity of the stories he tells. Perhaps the finest example of this is “Crooked Road,” which seethes with a palpable anger at “good dreams gone cold,” but which gives a fully realized account of the origins of its narrator’s rage (it’s a story of a couple whose already mediocre life is undone when their son is killed in a coal mining accident) and how he is attempting to channel his anger into something more substantive. Knight may not ultimately agree with the choices made by the characters in his songs, but he gives careful consideration to how and why someone could make those choices. Heart of Stone‘s title and its ragged, bluesy Southern rock style are deceptive in that regard: It’s a record of profound empathy, and one of 2008’s finest.