In 1997, Grand Forks, North Dakota, was changed forever by the Red River as it crested nearly 30 feet above flood level, poured over the dikes, and inundated the town. Houses, businesses, churches, schools—everything was destroyed. Tom Brosseau, a native of the town, knew life would never be the same. He left Grand Forks, but has been revisiting his home over the ensuing years in his spare, careful, and reflective songs.
"It's important to not be afraid of going out in the world," says Brosseau, who spent the four years after leaving North Dakota traveling around the country before settling down in Los Angeles where he lives now. He's still out on the road much of the year, singing lyrics like "I haven't turned around to look back as of yet. I don't know where I'm wandering," off his 2005 debut with local Loveless Records, What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye. The peripatetic nature of this talented singer/songwriter (he prefers "storyteller" with its old-tyme, sepia tone) arises as much from running toward the future as escaping the past.
On his website he describes his new album, Grand Forks (released January 23 on Loveless), as being about, "hope and success over obstacles, the coming together of a community, the endurance and hardship and heartache, homelessness and loss; it is about the future, it is about the past." A pretty exhaustive catalog for a nine-song album that barely tops 30 minutes.
But Brosseau's never been short on ambition. After leaving North Dakota, he traveled to Nashville to play the small clubs and back rooms that are the required residences for the aspiring country songwriter. Nothing much happened, though, and he says that although it felt like three months, he probably "wasn't there much more than three weeks."
And then, again, he left, with a feeling that must have been much like the one in "Jane and Lou," also off What I Mean to Say Is Goodbye, where he implores, "Let's say goodbye to our old lives even though we ain't old and we don't know where to go. Let's get into something new, change our names to something plain, you be Jane and I'll be Lou and every day will be new." Constantly re-envisioning himself, Brosseau holds the line between country, old-time blues, and traditional songwriting, citing as influences everyone from Woody Guthrie to Cole Porter.
What sets Brosseau apart from the hordes of other new/freak/free/progressive folk artists out there now is his peculiar, ageless, genderless, spectral voice. It swirls and plays at the edge of melody like the wind through the prairie grass he remembers from his North Dakota childhood with its "cold springs and cold summers." It pauses and trips and carries on at a pace that is alternately frustrating and mellifluous. It is a voice that brings back reports about another world, similar to the one we know, but slower, more meaningful, and more dimly lit.
On the new album, there are even cautionary tales from this parallel world, such as "Dark and Shiny Gun," which lovingly describes a story of three kids who play with a loaded gun. The song progresses at a stately, terrifying stroll as Brosseau details each step of the tragedy.
Brosseau says Grand Forks is the result of 10 years of thinking about the Red River flood, and in the album's finale, "97 Flood" he returns to his hometown. Backed by a slow and simple chord progression, the water rises higher with each quiet verse until it pours "into every corner, into every hall, to the pews in every church, to the stools in every bar." The simple documentary style of the song proves almost as devastating as the events it describes.
But Brosseau is not a chronicler of doom. Take the lighthearted "There's More than One Way to Dance" where he exhorts his listeners to follow their own internal rhythms. "You can go however slow, you can lose all your control. You can either stay in line or you can take a walk outside. You can skip and you can prance. There's more than one way to dance."
And if life is full of floods and death and loneliness, then there's also dancing and love and music. That's reason enough to walk alongside Tom Brosseau as he makes his way toward the future, all the while keeping a wary eye on our shared, instructive past.