A cult hero on the roots scene in his native Canada for nearly two decades and increasingly revered by U.S. critics and audiences, singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith has crafted the finest, most thematically rich album of his career with his latest effort, Tinderbox. Drawing heavily from country and folk conventions and from vintage acoustic blues, the album finds Eaglesmith at his gritty, straightforward best. He and co-producer Scott Merritt leave the arrangements here loose and ragged: There’s a limber, soulful groove running throughout tracks like the standout “Shoulder to the Plow,” “I Pray Now” and two renditions of “Killing Me.” Even more inspired, though, are cuts like opener “Sweet Corn,” “Fancy God” and the title track, which subvert the conventions of Southern gospel music within the context of narratives that challenge religious traditions.
His choice of images is consistently engaging, but what makes Eaglesmith such a distinctive songwriter is the economy of his language. While he has the fiery passion and the social conscience of folk singers like Woody Guthrie (most evident here on “You Can’t Trust Them”), the minimalism of his lyrics is more akin to that of Hank Williams. He’s able to mine more emotional depth from a few repetitions of a single phrase on songs like “I Pray Now” and “Quietly” than many of his more verbose contemporaries can convey in an entire longwinded verse.
That his writing is so succinct works to his advantage on this album, in that each song is steeped in the same Bible-belt imagery and uses the same working-class vernacular while still managing to say something unique. As an exploration of why people often turn to religion during difficult times and how that religion often fails in those circumstances, Tinderbox is an album of nearly limitless depth. The conviction and authority in Eaglesmith’s songwriting, performances and arrangements also make it one of the most compelling roots-rock albums in recent memory and an album that stands to break him to a significantly wider audience.